In the furor of following Comet ISON, we’ve almost lost track of another fine, fuzzy fellow – Comet Lovejoy. Last we checked in on this comet during the first half of November, it had swelled to almost half a degree in diameter with a 2-degree-long tail. From a dark sky the comet was even bright enough to glimpse with the naked eye in moonlight.
I’m here to tell you it’s still all of those things. With the moon out of the sky, I could see Lovejoy without difficulty with the naked eye near the star Gamma in the constellation Bootes below the handle of the Big Dipper early this morning. It looked like a small fuzzy blob of magnitude 4.6.
10×50 binoculars really did the comet justice. With them a beautiful, gossamer tail stretched across half the field of view or about 2.5 degrees. One degree is the amount of sky you can cover with your pinkie finger held at arm’s length. The photos closely match my visual impression of the tail through the 10x50s.
Through a 15-inch telescope at low magnification, Lovejoy’s monster-sized head (just under half a degree, the diameter of a full moon) glowed pale blue-green highlighted by a bright, fuzzy dot at its center – the false nucleus. The real comet nucleus always remains hidden in its wraps of dust and gas.
Upping the magnification to 287x, a striking, funnel-shaped fan of dust issued from the false nucleus to the south-southeast. This feature has been a regular part of Lovejoy’s anatomy for at least the past few weeks. I urge observers with 6-inch and larger telescopes to take a look. This amazing jet of dusty material boiling off the comet’s nucleus won’t be visible forever. Use high power and bore right into the coma’s center.
Comet Lovejoy clears the horizon around 1 a.m. (I know -ouch!) but you’ll see it best between 2:30 and the start of dawn when it’s better placed. The comet passed closest to Earth on Nov. 20 – that’s why it’s still bright. As it moves away from Earth it will gradually get dimmer, which makes the coming two moonless weeks the best time to seize the opportunity.