Cross-Year Comet

Beetroot Juice (Part 2) must be postponed because we really have to say something about Comet Lovejoy.

It was discovered by Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy in August. (Its official designation is C/2014 Q2, in which the Q means “second half of August.”) So it was able to get into the “Comets” section of Astronomical Calendar 2015, which describes its steeply inclined orbit.

comsf14Q2-1412

This brings it up at an angle of 80 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic, outside the December-January part of Earth’s orbit, and at a favorable time: December-January. So it is well out in our evening sky. Still, it won’t pass that close – halfway out from our orbit to Mars’s – and so the hopes of its reaching naked-eye brightness were cautious.

But, unlike so many comets that have disappointed, it is proving brighter than was expected, and has already passed the extreme naked-eyed threshold of magnitude 6.

Here is a high-power photo taken in Australia by Rolando Ligustri on Dec. 28, when Comet Lovejoy was passing the globular cluster M79 in Lepus, the “Hare” constellation under Orion’s feet. (Don’t expect the comet to look like this in your binoculars.)

com14Q2photoLigustri

Here is an enlarged chart showing how it will progress northward through Taurus. The numbers at the side are declination – height below or above the celestial equator.

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It will be nearest to us on Jan. 7 and perhaps at its brightest, besides getting higher above the evening horizon, though still in the southern celestial hemisphere (not far west of Orion’s Belt). It may really be findable with the naked eye as a fuzzy star. Its tail, pointing away from the Sun, may be rather foreshortened. Each evening it will become more convenient because climbing north, but perhaps beginning to fade as it ascends through the ecliptic on Jan. 16 and passes west of the Pleiades. On Jan. 30 it will pass through its perihelion – the nearest point, in its vast orbit, to the Sun – but our own orbit will be carrying us away from it.

1 thought on “Cross-Year Comet”

  1. Around 2230 PST 26 December I observed this comet through 15×70 binoculars and then naked-eye low in the southeast from a dark location near Yorkville, California. In the binoculars it was a big bright fuzzball with a moderately brighter core and no apparent tail. My friends who are not particularly experienced skywatchers were also able to see it without optical aid when I showed them where to look.

    I’m looking forward to following this comet as it climbs higher in the sky and appears earlier in the evening. After the over-inflated expectations for Comets PANSTARRS and ISON, it’s nice to see an unexpectedly bright comet, rather than one whose anticipatory hype far outshines its actual appearance. It’s also nice to see a comet that’s named after a human being rather than a robot.

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