A question from a reader this morning stirred me to post this update on Comet Lovejoy, the great sungrazing comet of 2011. While the brightest part of the tail near the nearly-vanished head of the comet is now visible from the southern U.S., it’s exceedingly faint. I know of only one observer at this time who has succeeded in seeing it – Alan Hale, co-discoverer of one of the best known comets of our time, Comet Hale-Bopp. Twice this past week he used a 16-inch telescope to eke out the extremely faint glow of the comet’s head / tail. His first observation was made Sunday night:
“I had excellent sky conditions right down to the horizon. There definitely seemed to be an extremely pale and vague glow — not much more than a brightening of the background sky, but it seemed to be real. It almost precisely followed the expected rate and direction of motion during the 1 1/2 hours that I followed it,” wrote Hale in an e-mail today.
He spotted the same faint glow last night (25th) moving in the same direction. Both times Hale estimated its brightness at 12.0, but because the comet’s light was so spread out, it was much more difficult to see than a typical smaller 12th magnitude comet.
From the southern hemisphere, where Comet Lovejoy is much higher in the sky, amateur astronomer and comet discoverer David Seargent spotted it with large 25 x 100 and 15 x 80 binoculars on Sunday the 22nd. His description matches Hale’s – a very faint glow. Meanwhile, astrophotographer Rob Kaufman of Australia pushed his camera equipment to the limit to record an impossibly faint 26-degree long tail. His picture (above) is a negative image to better show the contrast between comet and sky. What’s cool about the photo is that the tail pokes north almost to Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, stars widely visible from anywhere in the U.S. and southern Canada.
Pity that the better part of the tail is simply too dim to be seen with naked eye, binoculars or telescope. Unless you live in the far southern U.S. and have a moderate to large telescope, your chances of seeing Lovejoy are rapidly diminishing if only because the moon’s phase is waxing.
Bright moons kill faint comets. By the time Comet Lovejoy is high enough to be better placed for viewing in the mid-northern states next week, the moon will be on its way to full, making it impossible for anyone to spot it.
When the moon finally departs the early evening sky around Feb. 9, many amateur astronomers will be out for one last try at a visual observation. I’ll be among them. Even though Lovejoy will continue moving farther from Earth and fading in the coming weeks, I remain hopeful.
If you live in Arizona, Florida and other southern regions of the U.S. and Central America, now’s the time to seize the opportunity.