Grab Your Binoculars, See New Comet Lovejoy At Dawn

New comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy glows green and sports a faint gas tail more than 1° long in this photo taken on March 30. The tail points west. The comet is an easy binocular target visible just before the start of dawn in the constellation Pegasus the Flying Horse. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Like the first spring wildflower to pop up from the flattened grass and mud, a newly discovered comet now graces the sky at dawn. Discovered on March 9 by Terry Lovejoy of Australia, it was a faint fuzzy spot in Sagittarius when he first happened on it. Since then, the comet’s brightened rapidly and is now visible in ordinary 50mm binoculars like 7x50s and 10x50s.

This is my wimpy photo of Comet Lovejoy. Just a quick shot taken with a 135mm lens on March 29 about 5:15 a.m. Details: f/2.8, ISO 2500, 10 second exposure). Credit: Bob King

I saw it Wednesday morning (March 29) around 5 a.m. local time a little before the start of dawn low in the eastern sky. Lovejoy stood about 15° high (one and a half fists) and was easy to spot in my 10x50s, appearing like a small fuzzy spot with a brighter center. It was easier to see than the other sort-of-bright comet in the sky, 41P/T-G-K, in part because it was smaller and more compact. Lovejoy is currently about magnitude +7 or just one magnitude shy of being visible with the naked eye under a dark, rural sky.

Before seeking the comet in binoculars, focus them on a bright star until the star is as sharp a point as possible. Then point them to the comet’s position and look for a small, fuzzy spot that appears at first glance like an out of focus star. If you study this spot, you’ll be able to see it has a brighter, almost star-like center.

Facing the east at dawn on April Fools morning from mid-northern latitudes, you’ll see the comet right next to the obvious naked eye star Epsilon (ε) Pegasi (Enif). Because the sun rises earlier and earlier each morning, the comet remains about 15° high at the start of dawn for much of April. Created with Stellarium

Through the telescope, the comet was a bright, pale blue-green blob with a bright, nearly star-like center. I didn’t see a tail. Even when dawn began and the sky began to grow paler in the east, the comet remained visible in the binoculars for a time.

Lovejoy keeps moving north and east (up and to the left as you face east) as it loops from Pegasus to Andromeda over the next two weeks. Easy times to find it are:

  • April 1: Passes just above the bright star Enif (ε Pegasi) and south of the bright globular cluster M15.
  • April 8-9: Zooms by Beta Pegasi, the star marking the NW corner of the Great Square
  • April 20-22: Pairs up with M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Both will be visible in binoculars at the same time.
This map shows C/2017 E4 Lovejoy’s daily position at 5 a.m. CDT (dates marked every three days) now through late April. Stars are shown to magnitude +8 and north is up. Click for a large version you can save and print. The comet comes closest to the Earth on March 31 at a distance of 55.8 million miles and closest to the sun on April 23. Map: Bob King, Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

The comet is predicted to brighten to at least magnitude +6, making it possible for those with very dark skies to see it without optical aid. That would be awesome. But there’s also possible that Lovejoy is only undergoing a temporary flare-up and will soon fade. Who knows? That’s the sport in comet watching! It will be

Watch the comet boogie in this animation from still images taken on March 30. Credit: Gianluca Masi

If you want to see it then, find a spot with a good view to the east and be out there by 4:45-5 a.m., no later. As long as you’re there before twilight begins. You can determine that for any location by finding your local sunrise and then subtracting about an hour 40 minutes to get the start time for dawn. Use the two maps to help you get oriented and locate just where Lovejoy will be on a particular morning.

I hope you see it. And while you’re out, don’t forget to also look for 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, located high overhead near the Big Dipper.