Comet Lovejoy keeps on giving / Bright comet prospects for 2014

Beautiful Comet Lovejoy still shines brightly in the morning sky. This photo was taken on Dec. 27, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

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.

Track of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy in the morning sky marked at 3-day intervals shortly before the start of dawn (6 a.m. local time) tomorrow through Jan. 31. Stars shown for Dec. 29 to magnitude 5.8. Her = Hercules and Oph = Ophiuchus. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

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.

Mars and Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap as seen from Earth on Oct. 19, 2014 when the comet might pass as close as 25,700 miles (41,300 km) from the planet’s center. View shows the sky at the end of evening twilight facing southwest. Stellarium

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.

Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium.

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.

Lovejoy, a comet with a VERY long tail to tell

Mosaic image of Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 13 with a long tail showing numerous kinks, twists and knots from its interactions with the solar wind. Please click to explore and enjoy a MUCH larger version. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

In case you haven’t seen this photo, all ll I can say is … AMAZING. Austrian astrophotographer Gerald Rhemann photographed Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 13 with a tail at least 20 degrees long. That’s more than 40 full moons side by side! The tiny version of the photo I’ve posted only hints at the incredible structures in the comet’s blue gas tail. Click the image to see the monster version. See what I mean?

The kinks, twists and blobs tell the tale of a tail flayed and hammered by the solar wind. Gases like carbon monoxide released from the comet’s nucleus as it vaporizes in sunlight are ionized (electrified) by the sun’s ultraviolet light and form the blue-tinted ion tail. Changing magnetic fields embedded in the sun’s solar wind stream by and interact with the ionized gases, sculpting bizarre shapes and multiple streamers. Like a wind sock, gas tales belie the wind’s strength, speed and direction.

Austrian astrophotographer Gerald Rhemann with his 12″ f/3.6 telescope used to shoot Comet Lovejoy. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Toward the top of the photo and roughly parallel to the gas tail look for the smooth, pale yellow dust tail. Dust from the comet, released along with the gas, gets pushed back behind the comet’s head by the pressure of sunlight to form a separate tail defining the comet’s curved orbit.

Since dust is neutral, the solar wind doesn’t mess with it like the ionized (electrified) gases in the ion tail.

Lovejoy’s tail will likely grow even longer as the comet heads toward perihelion (closest approach to the sun) on December 23 and solar heating intensifies.

Unfortunately, the comet has been slowly moving away from Earth and slowly fading since late November.

This map shows the sky facing east-northeast about two hours before sunrise. Comet Lovejoy’s position is shown every 3 days through Dec. 30. Click for large version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

At the moment, Lovejoy’s making its way across the constellation Hercules and best viewed in the morning sky just before the start of dawn when it stands some 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. For observers in mid-northern latitudes, Hercules is also visible very low in the evening sky with the comet just 10 degrees high and dropping lower by the night.

Although compromised by moonlight, it’s still visible in binoculars and small telescopes glowing around magnitude 6. In about a week, the moon will be a crescent and much less of a bother. The tail will be much more obvious at that time.

Comet ISON update Dec. 4 – A Stubborn Fellow

Low-resolution image from one of the cameras on STEREO-A taken on Dec. 1. Called a “beacon image” it’s a frame from a 24-hour daily stream of data from the spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Comet ISON lives! OK, it might be on life support, but the comet written off as dead a week ago still glows in recent photos taken by the STEREO-A cameras. While no one’s seen it from the ground yet, we’re getting close to that opportunity.

One of the latest STEREO-A beacon photos may or may not show the comet. For some reason, the resolution in photos made today is poor, making the comet’s identification dificult. Credit: NASA

This Saturday Dec. 7 the comet will appear very low in the southeastern sky for a brief period just before the start of morning twilight. I doubt anyone will see it with their eyeballs but intrepid astrophotographers are eager to photograph it.

High resolution photo from STEREO-A’s H1 heliospheric imager camera showing Comet ISON on Dec. 1. Although taken at the same time, it appears fainter here. Differences in picture quality and exposure are probably why. Credit: NASA

Latest hi-resolution photo from STEREO-A shows continued fading of Comet ISON. Credit: NASA

Based on these photos, the latest I could find, ISON shines about as brightly as the nebulosity in and around the Pleiades star cluster. Not bright by any stretch, small telescopes will still show the brightest parts of the cluster’s cocoon-like nebula from a dark sky. That’s my educated guess on the comet’s potential visibility. Hopefully we’ll see photos and magnitude estimates from the ground very soon.

Most recent STEREO-A image published Dec. 3 at 4:49 p.m. CST only hints at the comet’s presence. Credit: NASA

UPDATE Dec. 5: Latest hi-res STEREO-A photo shows ISON barely there.

Comet Lovejoy photographed this morning from Italy. Details: Camera piggybacked on a telescope, 430mm lens at f/6.3, 142 second exposure, ISO 800. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

One comet remains bright – Lovejoy. It’s traveling through the constellation Bootes in the wee hours before dawn and can still be viewed in binoculars. Click HERE for a finder map.

Move over ISON, time to share the love with Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1 Lovejoy) at 2:30 a.m. this morning Nov. 29, 2013. The comet was faintly visible with the naked eye and a pretty sight in binoculars. Details: 70-second exposure, ISO 800, 70mm f/2.8 on a tracking mount. Credit: Bob King

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.

This map shows Comet Lovejoy every three days Nov. 30 to Dec. 30 about 2 hours before sunrise in the eastern sky. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

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.

Comet Lovejoy through a 200mm telephoto lens on a tracking mount this morning. Credit: Bob King

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.

Beautiful pairing of Comet Lovejoy and the galaxy M63 on Nov. 25, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: Damian Peach

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.

Closeup of Comet Lovejoy’s false nucleus (dot) with a plume of dust sticking out to the left on Nov. 12, 2013. Credit: Luc Arnold

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.

Comet Lovejoy buzzes the Beehive Cluster / Moon, Venus “Christmas” conjunction

Comet Lovejoy, glowing green from fluorescing gases, passes below the Beehive star cluster early this morning. Notice the comet’s short tail pointing up to the west. Details: 200mm telephoto at f/2.8, ISO 800, 70-second exposure. Credit: Bob King

Clouds ruled most of last night but not at 1 a.m. this morning when Comet Lovejoy came up over the trees next to the Beehive Cluster in the constellation Cancer. The comet was very easy to see in 10×50 binoculars as a small, glowing patch alongside the larger spray of stars that make up the cluster.

The moon and Venus in a “triple conjunction” with the big ball on the Christmas tree at Bentleyville Christmas display in downtown Duluth last night. Credit: Bob King

Presently at magnitude 6-6.5, Lovejoy will soon become a naked eye comet for observers with dark skies as it sails northward toward the Big Dipper. I can’t wait. It’s been many months since we’ve had a comet that didn’t require a set of glass eyes to see.

The crescent moon hovers of the LED ball atop the Christmas tree. Credit: Bob King

Do you remember the last bright comet? That would have been L4 PANSTARRS last spring. Many struggled to find it because it was only visible for a short time in bright twilight before setting. Though Lovejoy won’t get nearly as bright, skywatchers can follow it into winter with binoculars and small telescopes.

Did you happen to see Venus and moon at dusk yesterday evening? I caught them shining together over our city’s big Christmas lighting display and couldn’t resist a few photos of this rare “triple conjunction”.

If you’re interested in photographing the moon in twilight, you can do it so long as you can hand-hold your camera at 1/30 – not too tough a task. Compose a scene that includes the moon and start shooting about 30 minutes after sunset, when the twilight glow and moonlight are in balance. Let the camera figure the exposure and check the back replay to see if you’re on the money.

Boo! Ghostly auroras possible on Halloween

A farewell X2-class flare from big sunspot region 1875 as it departed the sun’s face late Tuesday afternoon Oct. 29. Although it blasted out a massive cloud of electrons and protons (see below), the material doesn’t appear to be directed toward Earth. Credit: NASA

Auroras on Halloween? I can’t think of a better fit than the spooky quavering of northern lights. I’m happy to report there’s a real possibility that skywatchers in the northern U.S. and southern Canada might share their treat or treating with an ominous green arc hanging over the northern horizon.

Aftermath of the X2 flare from sunspot region 1875 – a massive burst of particles lifts off the sun to the right. Photo made with a coronagraph, which blocks the sun so astronomers can study the sun’s corona or atmosphere. Credit: NASA / SOHO

Space weather experts are forecasting a 20 percent chance of minor geomagnetic storms and accompanying auroras for mid-latitudes through tomorrow night. Northern lights were expected this past weekend from the combined effects of several flares. The continuing parade of large sunspot groups and their associated solar flares have sent several particle blasts in our direction. None ever found a way past Earth’s magnetic defenses to spark a display of northern lights.

Let’s hope that changes on Halloween. That’s when the effects of a M4-class (medium-sized) flare from sunspot region 1882 will arrive. Clouds of high-speed subatomic particles and tangled magnetic fields lofted into space from the explosion are on the way; be on the lookout tonight and tomorrow night. All the aurora indicators have been very low the past week, but I noticed today that the Kp index has been ticking up, a good sign.

Waves of CME (coronal mass ejection) material sweep past Comet Lovejoy earlier this week in an animation of STEREO space probe images compiled by Alan Watson.

Comet Lovejoy, now visible in binoculars in the morning sky, has recently grown a narrow tail of fluorescing gas called an ion tail. Like a windsock, an ion tails wiggles and warps according to changes in speed and intensity in the wind of particles released by the sun.

Kinking and bending in the ion tail of Comet Lovejoy seen here on Oct. 29 may be result of the passage of waves of solar particles entwined with magnetic fields. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

All those recent coronal mass ejections sent waves of particles across the solar system, some of which flowed right across the comet and may have caused a twist in its tail recorded by amateur astronomers earlier this week. The animation, compiled by Alan Watson from images taken by NASA’s STEREO sun-watching spacecraft, show the waves very clearly.

For more on finding Comet Lovejoy and the three other bright-ish comets in the morning sky, please see my article Four Comets Haunt the Halloween Dawn on Universe Today. Detailed maps are included.

Comet Lovejoy pokes its head above Arizona’s horizon

Multiple time exposure pictures were "stacked" together to make this deep image of Comet Lovejoy. Some of the "black snow" is camera noise, much of it is very faint stars. The bright star Sirius is at upper right. Click image to see Rob's nice website devoted to the comet. Credit: Rob Kaufman

A question from a reader this morning stirred me to post this update on Comet Lovejoy, the great sungrazing comet of 2011. While the brightest part of the tail near the nearly-vanished head of the comet is now visible from the southern U.S., it’s exceedingly faint. I know of only one observer at this time who has succeeded in seeing it – Alan Hale, co-discoverer of one of the best known comets of our time, Comet Hale-Bopp. Twice this past week he used a 16-inch telescope to eke out the extremely faint glow of the comet’s head / tail. His first observation was made Sunday night:

“I had excellent sky conditions right down to the horizon. There definitely seemed to be an extremely pale and vague glow — not much more than a brightening of the background sky, but it seemed to be real.  It almost precisely followed the expected rate and direction of motion during the 1 1/2 hours that I followed it,” wrote Hale in an e-mail today.

He spotted the same faint glow last night (25th) moving in the same direction. Both times Hale estimated its brightness at 12.0, but because the comet’s light was so spread out, it was much more difficult to see than a typical smaller 12th magnitude comet.

Comet Lovejoy in its glory days photographed from Australia on Dec. 26, 2011. Credit: Rob Kaufman

From the southern hemisphere, where Comet Lovejoy is much higher in the sky, amateur astronomer and comet discoverer David Seargent spotted it with large 25 x 100  and 15 x 80 binoculars on Sunday the 22nd. His description matches Hale’s – a very faint glow. Meanwhile, astrophotographer Rob Kaufman of Australia pushed his camera equipment to the limit to record an impossibly faint 26-degree long tail. His picture (above) is a negative image to better show the contrast between comet and sky. What’s cool about the photo is that the tail pokes north almost to Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, stars widely visible from anywhere in the U.S. and southern Canada.

Pity that the better part of the tail is simply too dim to be seen with naked eye, binoculars or telescope. Unless you live in the far southern U.S. and have a moderate to large telescope, your chances of seeing Lovejoy are rapidly diminishing if only because the moon’s phase is waxing.

Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 22, 2011 reflected in water. Credit: Colin Legg

Bright moons kill faint comets. By the time Comet Lovejoy is high enough to be better placed for viewing in the mid-northern states next week, the moon will be on its way to full, making it impossible for anyone to spot it.

When the moon finally departs the early evening sky around Feb. 9, many amateur astronomers will be out for one last try at a visual observation. I’ll be among them. Even though Lovejoy will continue moving farther from Earth and fading in the coming weeks, I remain hopeful.

If you live in Arizona, Florida and other southern regions of the U.S. and Central America, now’s the time to seize the opportunity.

First-ever picture of a black hole in the works

Comet Lovejoy cruises by the Large Magellanic Cloud, the largest, brightest satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, on January 13. Credit: Rob Kaufman

Lovejoy, the little comet that beat the odds and survived its swing around the sun last month, still shows a sleek cometary form, but it’s barely visible anymore with the naked eye. Amateur astronomers like to joke that they saw an object at the threshold of visibility using a technique called “averted imagination”, a reference to averted vision, which really can help you see a faint object more clearly by not staring straight at it.

Comet Lovejoy’s tail still shows up in long time exposure photos as a long, wispy streak. Depending on the darkness of the sky and lens used, amateurs have recorded tails lengths of between 20 and 37 degrees this week. The comet continues heading northward in the coming days and will finally become visible a week from now for residents in the far southern U.S. in places like Tucson, New Orleans and Key West. On January 22 at 9 p.m. it will be just 5 degrees high due south in the constellation Pictor the Painter’s Easel  from southern Arizona. Hopefully, we’ll still be able to see some of it with binoculars without having to use averted imagination. For a recent NASA update on Lovejoy, click HERE.

A computer simulation of superheated plasma swirling around the black hole at the center of our galaxy. The dark shadow at center is what astronomers hope to finally see. Image by Scott Noble/RIT

Astronomers and physicists from around the world will gather in Tucson, Arizona on January 18 for a conference on the first coordinated endeavor to spy a black hole using the Event Horizon Telescope. Although there’s lots of circumstantial evidence for black holes, no one’s ever seen or photographed one. Despite their enormous masses, most are quite small. The dark shadow of a typical black hole, called the event horizon, measures only about 20 miles in diameter. Larger ones called supermassive black holes contain millions of solar masses and lurk in the centers of many galaxies including the Milky Way. Those can be up to a billion miles across or about the distance of Saturn from the sun. The one in our galaxy contains about 2.6 million times the mass of the sun and is estimated to be no more than 93 million miles across or nearly equal that of Earth’s distance from the sun.

The UA Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham is one of the many radio telescopes forming the Earth-sized Event Horizon Telescope. Credit: Dave Harvey/UA Steward Observatory

Even a 93-million-mile wide shadow is a small thing when seen from Earth’s vantage point 26,000 light years from the galactic center. It’s been likened to spotting a grapefruit on the moon. To see something that small, you need a gigantic telescope. That’s why the new Event Horizon”telescope” will be a combination of 50 existing radio telescopes around the globe to form one monster virtual scope the size of Earth. Utterly cool idea. Data from each instrument will be carefully combined in a central processing center to create the images. Radio was chosen over optical telescopes because radio waves can penetrate the dust and other star gunk between us and the galactic center.

According the University of Arizona press release, participating in the project are the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Reasearch in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California. The global array will include several radio telescopes in Europe, a 10-meter dish at the South Pole and potentially a 15-meter antenna atop a 15,000-foot peak in Mexico.

The supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy is the target of the Event Horizon Telescope. Two views of the Milky Way are shown: face-on from above and edge-on from the side. The solar system is some 26,000 light years from the center.

The Milky Way’s black hole is an ideal candidate because it’s large and relatively close by. Although there are bigger black holes out there, they’re in other galaxies and much too far away. Of course, scientists want to do more than just take a picture. They hope to study the hot, glowing matter swirling around the hole right up until it disappears at the event horizon. Dust and stars that stray near a black hole can end up like water going down your bathtub drain. The material is heated to incandescence through friction as its swirls its way to oblivion. They’d also like to know if the prediction made by Einstein’s Relativity Theory that the event horizon is circular is correct.

It’s an exciting project and I’ll bet you’re as eager as I am to see the first photo of a black hole.

Comet Lovejoy’s fading glory

Comet Lovejoy is the long, faint streak to the right of the Milky Way in a photo taken on January 2 from Bright, Victoria, Australia. The Coal Sack dark nebula and Southern Cross are at middle left. Alpha and Beta Centauri at lower left. Credit: Rob Kaufman

Time to check in on the wonder that is Comet Lovejoy. Though still too far south to see at mid-northern latitudes, the comet remains a fading spectacle for skywatchers down under. Various observers have reported tail lengths of 25 to more than 40 degrees – that’s twice the height of the constellation Orion.

Much of that has only been visible with averted vision, a technique of looking off to the side rather than directly at a faint object, under very dark skies. According to Rob McNaught, the brightest part of the comet is a 10-degree section some 10 degrees up from the comet’s extremely faint head. Most of the tail is now fainter than the Milky Way.

Lovejoy is currently circumpolar for Australia, meaning that it’s close enough to the south celestial pole star (the southern hemisphere’s version of our North Star) that it never sets. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are circumpolar for the northern United States and Canada. That’s given skywatchers plenty of time to see it in a dark sky in the early morning hours after moonset. Soon however the moon will be full and light up the sky all night. I suspect Comet Lovejoy will rapidly become invisible or nearly so with the naked eye even from dark sites in the next few nights.

In the top image photographer Rob Kaufman tracked the stars' movement using a motorized mount. In this one, he opened the shutter and let the stars trail during the time exposure. Now you can see how the stars circle about the dim star Sigma Octans - the southern pole star - near the center of the "whirlpool". Credit: Rob Kaufman

Despite it being very faint, the comet still has a head, which implies there might still be some dust boiling off the comet’s core or nucleus. There’s speculation among comet observers that after fresh ice was exposed during its close passage to the sun, a new insulating layer of dust and ice has shut down activity since. On the other hand, since no nucleus is visible down to 19th magnitude, maybe it really is gone, with its remnants broken into tiny, invisible bits that went into seeding its vast tail.

If Lovejoy can hold together a while longer, folks in places like Tucson and Key West should start seeing part of the comet’s tail in the southern evening sky after the moon departs the scene around mid-month.

Shadows of spruce trees in moonlight pattern the snowy road beneath Orion last night. Details: 16mm lens at f/3.2, ISO 1600 and 20 second exposure. Photo: Bob King

Did you catch the moon and Jupiter last night? What a sight the two made together over the rooftops. Moonlight and starlight were in perfect balance for some nighttime photography. Sure, the temperature at my place was -5 F, but I couldn’t resist taking the camera out for few pictures of Orion, favorite constellation of photographers. If you have a tripod and the ability to take 15-30 second long time exposures, give it a try yourself sometime this week when the pizza pie moon shines brightly.

Don’t forget – tomorrow morning is the peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. The Eastern half of the U.S and Canada are favored for the maximum number of meteors. Click back to yesterday’s blog for more details.

Flaming rocket upstages Santa; satellite falls on Cosmonaut Street

Video showing the re-entry of the Soyuz rocked stage over Germany

A Russian Soyuz rocket stage used to lift a crew of three astronauts to the International Space Station last week burned up in spectacular fashion over Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France on Christmas Eve at dusk as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Re-entering rocket stages and other man-made debris look nearly identical to flaming meteors, but there’s a difference. Meteors travel from 10-40 miles per second and flame out in a matter of seconds. Man-made space debris usually moves more slowly through the sky, because it’s scraping the upper atmosphere at less than 5 miles per second.  If you’re lucky enough to see a re-entry, the display can last up to 2-3 minutes.

Frame grab from another Youtube video of the Soyuz rocket burnup. Click to watch video

In unrelated development, the Russian communications satellite Meridian failed to reach orbit when launched on December 23 due to a failure in a Soyuz rocket. The satellite plummeted back to Earth just minutes later, landing in the Novosibirsk region of central Siberia. In a twist of irony that sounds more like a joke written for a late-night talk show host, a 20-inch spherical fragment of the satellite crashed into the roof of a home on Cosmonaut Street in the village of Vagaitsevo. Although Andrei Krivoruchenko and his wife were home at the time, no one was injured. By the way, many websites are confusing the satellite failure with the Christmas Eve Soyuz rocket stage re-entry. The two are not connected.

It’s been a long and difficult year for the Russian Roscosmos space program with the loss of five satellites, a Progress supply ship bound for the space station and the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe stuck in orbit and expected to fall back to Earth in mid-January. Even more worrying, with the end of the space shuttle program, the only ticket to the space station is aboard the Soyuz spacecraft propelled by similar Soyuz rocket boosters.Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Roscosmos, commented on Russian state television that the space industry was in crisis. He placed the blame on the loss of specialists from the program after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

John Burt looks at Comet Lovejoy through binoculars this morning (Dec. 26) from Gisborn, New Zealand. The photographer John Drummond estimated the tail at 27 degrees long and 3 degrees wide at the fainter end. No head was visible. Credit: John Drummond

Comet Lovejoy continues to make southern observers lose sleep every clear morning. I understand their sacrifice every time I see another photo of this fabulous object. Skywatchers across Australia and other southern hemispheric realms can spot the comet in the east in a dark sky before dawn.

Although the headless wonder has faded to around 4th magnitude, the tale has grown to 25 degrees or longer – taller than the outline of the constellation Orion – and remains easily visible. Northerners will have to wait about 4 weeks until Lovejoy shows up in the evening sky. More northern northerners like those of us in Minnesota won’t get our chance until the end of January-early February. I’ll take whatever scraps are left over just for the sake of “touching” this storied comet.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the southwestern sky after sunset tonight December 26. As twilight deepens, Venus and a thin crescent moon will share the scene together – a beautiful sight.