New Comet Lovejoy Joins An Exciting Lineup Of Fall Comets And Planets

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) photographed on September 8. Note the small, condensed coma (comet head) and short tail. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes

Australian comet hunter and amateur astronomer has done it again. He discovered a brand new comet with an 8-inch telescope and camera earlier this week. It’s his 4th. You might remember the Lovejoy name; Terry’s last find was  C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy), the first Kreutz-group sungrazing comet discovered by someone on the ground (as opposed to an orbiting observatory) in over 40 years.

C/2013 R1 Lovejoy is moving slowly east and north at the moment but it will soon gather steam as it approaches Earth. Watch for it below the Bowl of the Big Dipper when closest on Nov. 23. Planet positions here shown for Sept. 10. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Lovejoy’s comet was spotted along the border of the familiar constellation Orion and its dim neighbor Monoceros the Unicorn. Right now it’s faint and requires dark skies and at least a 12-inch scope. I gave it a whirl in my 15-inch scope this morning around 5 a.m. shortly before dawn. C/2013 R1 Lovejoy was a small, fuzzy glow of magnitude 13.5. While I could say it appeared unremarkable, that will soon change.

Come November the comet will be much closer and perhaps shine as brightly as 8th magnitude, making for a nice show in small telescopes. Closest approach of 38.1 million miles (61.3 million km) happens on Nov. 23  when the comet will peel across Ursa Major the Great Bear at a clip of more than a degree per night. With Lovejoy cruising the northern constellations, northern hemisphere skywatchers will be favored when comet’s at its best.

Perihelion or closest approach to the sun (81 million miles / 130.3 million km) happens on Christmas Day.after which the comet begins its slow departure back into deep space.

This map shows the sky facing southeast on the morning of Nov. 9, 2013. All three comets should be visible in binoculars or small telescopes. Mars and Jupiter add planetary bling to the comet-rich scene. Comet locations are accurate but appearances are for illustration only.  Stellarium

Now it just so happens there are two other comets sharing the morning sky at the same time as Lovejoy – comets 2P/Encke (EN-kee) and our good friend Comet ISON. Throw in the bright planets Mars and Jupiter and you’ve got one amazing morning sky show in early November. Check it out. All five objects form a wiggly line stretching across the southeastern sky before dawn.

On and around Nov. 9 will be the best time to ride the comet train. Lovejoy is expected to be mag. 9.5 on that date and visible in a 4-6-inch telescope; Encke at mag. 7 and Comet ISON at 6 should show up plainly in 35mm and 50mm  binoculars. Observers with very dark skies might glimpse ISON with the naked eye. Telescopic views will show more details including longer tails than binoculars.

I’m getting excited thinking about all the fun we’ll have early that month. Sure hope the weather’s good.


22 Responses

  1. Edward O'Reilly

    Fascinating news,Bob! The potential for 2 comets near or at naked eye brightness and one(Lovejoy) within binocular limits,all at the same time,is a truly exciting prospect! I have never had a 3 comet night before – fingers crossed for an abundance of clear skies!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      Yes, it’s great news. November can be dicey for clear skies in my neck of the woods, but I’m like you – hoping for the best.

      1. Edward M. Boll

        In May of 2004, as I recall, there was Linear, NEAT and Bradfield. For some reason, I have not figured out I had trouble spotting Linear T7.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Molly,
      Great to hear from you! I look forward to seeing you in class and getting a chance to view a few morning comets.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    With Lovejoy at magnitude 13.5, that puts it a little brighter than the ephemeris. Maybe a peak magnitude at 7 in Late November or early December is within reason. There is another brightening comet in Pluto’s magnitude range, Panstaarrs K1 which should put on a nice binocular show next Summer.

    1. astrobob

      Yes, my estimate is a bit brighter than a couple others as I measured a larger coma. 7 at peak seems reasonable but we’ll have to wait and see. I caught PANSTARRS K1 a few weeks back and it was faint but then again, it’s still far from Earth.

  3. Bob Crozier

    Hey Bob,

    I am trying to figure out how your two pictures go together. The picture made with the SkyMap software shows R1 passing right in line with Mars (either between us and Mars or somewhere on the other side of Mars, I’m assuming the latter given the distance and date you specified for closest approach to Earth) and I would guess that to be in the first or maybe even second week of November from the dates you have written there. But your Stellarium picture for Nov. 9 shows the comet to be much further west (or maybe northwest) of Mars and actually much closer to Jupiter. Is this because we still don’t have a well-determined orbit for this comet, or am I just not ‘reading’ those sky charts/maps very well?

    As always, I am really enjoying your blog!
    Live ready!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bob,
      The SkyMap chart shows the full sweep of the comet’s movement from Sept. 10 through late Nov. but the planet positions are shown for one date only – Sept. 10, the date I created the map. The multi-comet map shows all comets and planets as they’ll be on Nov. 9. I thought of adding the planet arcs on the Skymap map, but it would have made it too “busy”. I’ve since added the Sept. 10 date in the caption. Thanks!

  4. Gene Sauter

    I was out by the soccer field on Jean Duluth Rd last night between 2 and 3 am looking for Northern Lights. I’ve seen the pulsating streaming kinds before but last night they looked almost like clouds. Until I notice they were pulsating and I could see stars in them. They reminded me of the tv series of Star Trek. If these actually were the Northern Lights they were spectacular. Reds, greens and they filled much of the northern sky. By 2:45 they were finished. Were they the Northern Lights?

    1. astrobob

      Wow, you were up late! I checked the activity maps and Kp index and they indicate little to no aurora overnight at our latitude. Still, sometimes they can be wrong. Can you describe the sky conditions at the time – clear, partly cloudy? What you saw sure sounds like aurora to me, and yes, it can appear as pulsating patches of light.

      1. Gene Sauter

        Thanks for the reply. The sky conditions at first were clear to partly cloudy. I was parked facing east on Riley Rd so I was only looking north so I’m not sure what the sky conditions were to the south. My confusion was seeing what looked like puffy clouds BUT I could stars through them; they moved but they changed colors too (mainly rose to light green or pale); and they pulsated. It was weird but really spectacular. At about 3 am the sky conditions were clear. When you say that no aurora activity was listed for our area that makes me wonder what I actually did see. I thought maybe what I saw was light reflection on clouds but what I described made me think otherwise. I’m still confused. But thanks for the reply.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Gene,
          You still could have seen aurora, although I know that location has orange/red lighting to the north that can reflect from low clouds (there’s a bar and auto body place up that way) plus there’s new, nasty light from the soccer shelter that’s white/bluish. I checked Spaceweather and there are only two photos of this morning’s aurora photographed from Arctic latitudes. If you saw stars between the clouds, they’d be clouds, but since you saw stars through them it’s possible you may have seen aurora.

  5. JOe

    Nov 9th is my birthday! What a gift! Too bad the chemtrails around here have made the sky less and less clear and the stars less visible even on nights when there is no clouds. It’s a shame really. Not too long ago I could go outside and see so many stars shining brightly, consistently. Not now. I have to strain to see anything. A thick layering of metalloids and chemicals will do that to the atmosphere….

  6. chiep

    I’m a newbie about comets and all of these.
    I’d like to know whether it is the best to observe the comet when closest to the earth?
    Thank you.

    1. astrobob

      Yes, that’s almost always a good time – often the best time – to observe a comet. But it doesn’t need to be closest to the Earth to make for an impressive sight. For instance, Comet ISON will probably appear best a couple weeks before closest approach when still relatively near the sun. It gets an extra boost in brightness from the sun’s heat and light.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Randy,
      Great question. If you live in the northern U.S. and Canada, Lovejoy is very low in the northwestern at the onset of night. It then sets for a while and rises again in the northeast around midnight. Because the comet is traveling rapidly eastward it will very soon be strictly a morning object in the constellation Bootes. The best time to see is when it’s highest and that’s during the morning shortly before dawn.

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