Comet Lovejoy Pokes Its Head Above Arizona’s Horizon

Multiple time exposure pictures were "stacked" together to make this deep image of Comet Lovejoy. Some of the "black snow" is camera noise, much of it is very faint stars. The bright star Sirius is at upper right. Click image to see Rob's nice website devoted to the comet. Credit: Rob Kaufman

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.

Comet Lovejoy in its glory days photographed from Australia on Dec. 26, 2011. Credit: Rob Kaufman

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.

Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 22, 2011 reflected in water. Credit: Colin Legg

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.

7 Responses

  1. Milayla

    Hi bob I just read on my fb from that guy elenin that a astroid was going around the moon and its gonna have a close approch with earth in less than 20 hours do u know anuthing about this? And should we be worried? Pls ease my mind like always thanks

    1. astrobob

      Asteroid 2012 BX34 will pass about 48,000 miles from Earth tomorrow morning. It’s 46 feet across. Nothing to fear. As we talked about many times last year, these near-Earth asteroid approaches are fairly common.

  2. Milayla

    Can we see it from ny? & what time about? When I seen the post I thought of u bob lol and was like before I start going nuts let me see what u say lol

    1. astrobob

      It’s visible tomorrow morning in large amateur telescopes at around 14.5-15 magnitude in Virgo before the start of dawn from a dark sky site. Very faint!

  3. Milayla

    Thanks bob my son wants to try to see it lol what time should we set are alarms for?? Thanks to u bob my son is so involved in science and space he is doing sooo good.. I cant thank u enough

    1. astrobob

      I’m happy to hear your son’s doing well. To see the asteroid, he’ll need a large telescope (at least a 12-inch reflector), excellent map showing its position every few minutes and dark skies. Best time is just before dawn or around 5-5:30 a.m. Remember, this is definitely not visible with the naked eye. Good luck!

  4. Milayla

    Yawn lol were up almost 5 he is setting up, hope we see something lol and the closest approch is at 10:30 he wouldnt be able to see it right cause of the sun? Only cause he will be in school and it would be ,cool he thought to get his class involved

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