Aqua Comet And Venus Surprise

A sketch made with Photoshop showing Comet Lovejoy’s pretty aqua-colored coma as it passed very close to the globular cluster M79 in Lepus last night December 28th. The tiny nuclear region was bright and intense. Inside this dusty “cocoon” lies the icy comet itself. Credit: Bob King

If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean you know how enticing the water is. Aqua hues delight the eye, inviting you to jump in for a snorkel or swim. These warm thoughts sailed into my head last night when Comet Lovejoy swam into my telescope. Its huge coma, a little more than half the size of the full moon, glowed a subtle blue-green from carbon molecules boiled off the nucleus fluorescing in sunlight.

Wow! Check this out. Photo taken through a 12.5-inch telescope last night from Arizona shows the comet during its close passage of M79. Credit: Chris Schur

Had the half-moon not been out, I’m sure the comet would have been visible with the naked eye. Come on – it’s already 5th magnitude and still brightening! As it was, Lovejoy showed easily enough in 8×40 binoculars as a fuzzy blob in Lepus the Hare. Through the scope the coma was huge compared to the meek-looking globular cluster M79, a mere 410,000 light years in the far distance despite its apparent proximity to the comet.

Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King

You can follow Lovejoy for a few more nights until the full moon makes it a challenge. Patience, patience. Come January 6-7, the moon will begin to exit the sky and leave us with welcome darkness, perfect for more Lovejoy looking.

Venus from Peggys Cove, Nova Scotia on December 27th. Look low above the horizon a little more than halfway from the lighthouse to the left edge of the photo. Credit: Carol Behan-Sokolow

Funny story. After more than 3 weeks of clouds, I went out Sunday evening to find Venus after sunset. I drove to an open place and carefully scanned the southwestern horizon about 25 minutes past sundown. After a minute or two without success I wondered whether Venus might be hidden by the distant treeline. Then it hit me. Actually, Venus hit me. Suddenly the planet was there – but MUCH higher than I had thought. My brain was still stuck in the past when the sky had last been clear. In those 3 weeks the planet had climbed high enough to knock me over the head.

Unmistakable Venus, goddess of beauty, seen 30 minutes after sunset yesterday December 28th. Credit: Bob King

So now I can say with confidence that Venus is easily visible from 20-40 minutes after sunset shining brightly in the southwestern sky well to the left of the sunset point. Take a look the next clear night and you might be surprised.