Things have gotten awfully quiet around here ever since Comet ISON left the stage. The half dozen or so comets sprinkled about morning and evening skies are faint and require detailed charts and good-sized telescopes to see and appreciate. Except for Comet Lovejoy. This gift to beginner and amateur astronomers alike keeps on giving.
Still glowing around magnitude 6 (naked eye limit), the comet remains easy to see in binoculars from fairly dark skies as it tracks from the constellation Hercules into Ophiuchus in the coming weeks. Even in last quarter moonlight observers have reported seeing a short tail. Now that the moon is little more than a thin crescent and far away to the south of Lovejoy, conditions are perfect for another look.
The best time for viewing is shortly before the start of dawn when Lovejoy sails highest in the eastern sky at an altitude of around 30 degrees or “three fists” up from the horizon. By January’s end, the comet will still be 25 degrees high in a dark sky.
Looking ahead to 2014 there are at present three comets beside Lovejoy that are expected to wax bright enough to see in binoculars and possibly with the naked eye: C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS and C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. The first will be easy to track in a small telescope from mid-spring through early summer for northern hemisphere observers as it makes its way from Bootes across the Big Dipper and down through Leo the Lion.
K1 PANSTARRS then disappears in the solar glow for a while before returning to the morning sky in fall for its best showing. Expect it to crest above the naked limit (mag. 5.5) in mid-October just before it dips too far in the southern sky for easy viewing from mid-northern latitudes.
C/2013 A1 Siding Spring is expected to reach magnitude 7.5 and become binocular-worthy for southern hemisphere skywatchers in September. Northerners will have to wait until early October for the comet to make an appearance in Scorpius and Sagittarius very low in the southwestern sky at dusk. It will still glow around 8th magnitude through late October.
Would that we could see Siding Spring from Mars this fall. On October 19 the comet will pass so close to the planet that its outer coma or atmosphere may brush against that of Mars, possibly sparking a meteor shower. The sight of a bright planet smack in the middle of a comet’s head should be something quite wonderful to see through a telescope.
Finally, there’s comet C/2013 V5 (Oukaimeden), discovered November 15 at Oukaimeden Observatory in Marrekech, Morocco. Preliminary estimates place the comet at around magnitude 5.5 in mid-September. It should reach binocular visibility in late August in Monoceros the Unicorn east of Orion in the pre-dawn sky before disappearing in the twilight glow for mid-northern latitude observers. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will see the comet at its best and brightest before dawn in early September and at dusk later that month.
While the list of predicted comets is skimpy and arguably not bright in the sense of beauties like Hale-Bopp or even L4 PANSTARRS from earlier this year,all may become visible with the naked eye from a dark sky site and should present no problems seeing in binoculars.
Every year new comets are discovered, some of which can swiftly brighten and put on a great show just like Lovejoy did last fall several months after its discovery by Terry Lovejoy on September 7. We’ll just have to wait and see what flies our way.