Comet Lovejoy’s Fading Glory

Comet Lovejoy is the long, faint streak to the right of the Milky Way in a photo taken on January 2 from Bright, Victoria, Australia. The Coal Sack dark nebula and Southern Cross are at middle left. Alpha and Beta Centauri at lower left. Credit: Rob Kaufman

Time to check in on the wonder that is Comet Lovejoy. Though still too far south to see at mid-northern latitudes, the comet remains a fading spectacle for skywatchers down under. Various observers have reported tail lengths of 25 to more than 40 degrees – that’s twice the height of the constellation Orion.

Much of that has only been visible with averted vision, a technique of looking off to the side rather than directly at a faint object, under very dark skies. According to Rob McNaught, the brightest part of the comet is a 10-degree section some 10 degrees up from the comet’s extremely faint head. Most of the tail is now fainter than the Milky Way.

Lovejoy is currently circumpolar for Australia, meaning that it’s close enough to the south celestial pole star (the southern hemisphere’s version of our North Star) that it never sets. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are circumpolar for the northern United States and Canada. That’s given skywatchers plenty of time to see it in a dark sky in the early morning hours after moonset. Soon however the moon will be full and light up the sky all night. I suspect Comet Lovejoy will rapidly become invisible or nearly so with the naked eye even from dark sites in the next few nights.

In the top image photographer Rob Kaufman tracked the stars' movement using a motorized mount. In this one, he opened the shutter and let the stars trail during the time exposure. Now you can see how the stars circle about the dim star Sigma Octans - the southern pole star - near the center of the "whirlpool". Credit: Rob Kaufman

Despite it being very faint, the comet still has a head, which implies there might still be some dust boiling off the comet’s core or nucleus. There’s speculation among comet observers that after fresh ice was exposed during its close passage to the sun, a new insulating layer of dust and ice has shut down activity since. On the other hand, since no nucleus is visible down to 19th magnitude, maybe it really is gone, with its remnants broken into tiny, invisible bits that went into seeding its vast tail.

If Lovejoy can hold together a while longer, folks in places like Tucson and Key West should start seeing part of the comet’s tail in the southern evening sky after the moon departs the scene around mid-month.

Shadows of spruce trees in moonlight pattern the snowy road beneath Orion last night. Details: 16mm lens at f/3.2, ISO 1600 and 20 second exposure. Photo: Bob King

Did you catch the moon and Jupiter last night? What a sight the two made together over the rooftops. Moonlight and starlight were in perfect balance for some nighttime photography. Sure, the temperature at my place was -5 F, but I couldn’t resist taking the camera out for few pictures of Orion, favorite constellation of photographers. If you have a tripod and the ability to take 15-30 second long time exposures, give it a try yourself sometime this week when the pizza pie moon shines brightly.

Don’t forget – tomorrow morning is the peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. The Eastern half of the U.S and Canada are favored for the maximum number of meteors. Click back to yesterday’s blog for more details.

2 Responses

  1. Pete Gough

    Hey Bob, I recently received a pair of binos, I have managed to see the moon around Jupiter the evening. I amazing since the pair are not super powerful but are good enough to begin star gazing. I am based in southern UK so my sky may look slightly different to yours, but any tips are gratefully received.



    1. astrobob

      Hi Pete,
      Thanks for asking. Some of the best objects to look at right now are the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. They look very nice in binoculars – lots more stars than you’d see with your eyes. The ones in the Pleiades are especially nice because of the patterns they make. You can look for craters on the moon (along the terminator or shadow line) and Jupiter’s satellites. To help you identify which satellite is which, use the Jupiter moons link in the links column along the right side of the blog. Uranus and Neptune will also be visible in your binoculars and Venus will show a crescent phase this coming spring. There are many more things to see — Orion Nebula, M35 cluster in Gemini, several nice star clusters in Auriga and much more — but wait until the bright moon’s out of the sky, and ask me again.

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