Yesterday morning I dressed for subzero chill to look at comets Lovejoy and Nevski, Mars and a faint supernova in the constellation Leo. Although my hour under the stars didn’t lack in astronomical pleasures, I couldn’t help thinking about ISON. This week was supposed to be the start of that comet’s grand entry into the dawn sky after getting fired up by the sun. Alas, there was no comet. At least not yet. When I packed away the telescope and returned to the welcome warmth of my home, I felt a tinge of comet blues.
There has been one potential binocular sighting by Piotry Guzik of Poland and one possible picture of the comet taken by David Rankin Friday morning Dec. 6. Rankin’s image is particularly interesting because it shows maybe-ISON in the correct orientation “lying on its side”. Until confirming observations are made, these are still tentative. I suspect the digital imagers will be out in force over the weekend. We’ll know very soon both how bright and how large the ISON’s ghost will be.
Comet Lovejoy compensated for whatever twang of regret I felt at not seeing ISON leap over the trees. How fortunate we are to have this picturesque and interesting stand-in for the much-hyped ISON. In my dark eastern sky, Lovejoy could still be seen with the naked eye as a small, “soft” star of magnitude 5.5 in the constellation Corona Borealis. Fainter than a week ago, it will soon fade below the naked eye limit.
In 10×50 binoculars a streak of a tail shot up northwest of the bright head. I could trace it for 2.5 degrees. Fascinating fountain-like structures similar to the what you see in Gianluca Masi’s photo sprung up south-southeast of Lovejoy’s core when viewed at high magnification.
After 20 minutes of study I balled my hands into fists inside my gloves to warm them back up and then moved on to Mars.
Lovejoy slowly drops lower and lower in the morning sky over the next few weeks. You’ve got another 7-9 days of good viewing before the full moon returns to the morning sky. Use this chart to help you find it. That’s also the same amount of time left to attempt to see Comet ISON. Because it’s so amorphous and dim, moonlight will almost certainly kill it visually, though amateurs may still be able to get images.
My original ISON charts assumed the comet would be relatively bright in a twilight sky. This freshly baked map reflects the new reality and shows a lot more stars to hopefully help guide you to your target.
Keep in mind that the map shows the constellation positions for Dec. 7. Each night the stars rise 4 minutes earlier and push up one degree higher in the east. Add that to the comet’s rapid northward motion, and ISON gains altitude quickly in the next week, making a little easier to see each morning … assuming you can see it! On the 7th, for example, the comet is about 6 degrees high at map time; by the 14th, it climbs to 22 degrees.