Every so often we get help from the stars. Not the fortune-telling kind but real guidance as reference points to help us find cool things in the sky. If you haven’t arisen before dawn to spy Comet ISON and Comet Lovejoy yet, tomorrow morning’s a great time. Both comets are now visible in regular binoculars and near familiar celestial guideposts.
Comet Lovejoy, now easily visible in 50mm and smaller binoculars under a reasonably dark sky, glows at 6th magnitude right next to the pretty Beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer the Crab. The Beehive, also known as M44, is plainly visible to the naked eye as a small, fuzzy spot. Binoculars resolve into a “beehive” of individual stars. Look just to its lower left to find a softly-glowing patch with a brighter center. That’s Lovejoy.
A couple observers have even spotted the comet without any optical aid since it hovers right at the naked eye limit. I saw it Tuesday morning with ease in my 10x50s. Of the two comets, it will appear distinctly brighter.
The big surprise Tuesday was finding Comet ISON in the same binoculars. It wasn’t much – just a small, fuzzy spot of magnitude 8.5 – but that was bright enough to punch through a thin layer of haze and show in my glass. Tomorrow morning ISON will sit right next to the easy naked eye star Beta Virginis – also called Zavijava – well below Leo’s tail star Denebola. Put Beta in your binoculars and if your sky is dark and clear, you should see it.
By all means, if you have a small telescope, take it out too and make easy work of finding both comets. One more tip. While Lovejoy gets high enough to start observing around 2 a.m. local time, ISON will be low in the southeast at the start of dawn. Be sure you pick a location away from city lights with an open view in that direction. The ideal time to see both comets at their best is 1 1/2 to 2 hours before sunrise. Click HERE to find when the sun rises for your town so you know when to head out for a look.
A bit of news about Comet ISON. Gas production rates in the comet have risen recently, no doubt due to its getting closer to the sun. This could mean a more rapid brightening of the comet in the coming mornings. I hope you’ll be watching.