Wednesday, December 24, 2014
How to see Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on Christmas
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy is providing an amazing spectacle for telescopic viewers. Its ion tail is thin and dim, but photographic images have revealed a wealth of detail. In binoculars it is easily visible, even under suburban skies, as a distinct circular fuzzy patch, looking like a large globular cluster.
Now at magnitude 5.6-5.8, many people with dark skies have reported seeing it with the unaided eye. It is not visible to the unaided eye from my suburban location, but many of you are about to head off camping or caravaning or down to beach shacks for Christmas, where the skies will be dark.
Why not give looking for Lovejoy a go? It will not be as spectacular as comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy (also a Terry Lovejoy Christmas comet), you do not have to get up at 4 am to see it.
If you go out when the sky is dark (a little after 10 pm daylight saving time in most of Australia), and look east you will see the bright star Sirius almost dead ahead of you. This blue white star is the brightest in the sky, and is unmistakeable, off to the left (north) is the distinctive "saucepan" that forms the Belt of Orion the Hunter. Above the Saucepan is a bright blue-white star, Rigel. To the right (south) of Sirus and Rigel is the next brightest star in the sky, yellow Canopus.
These stars will be your guide to the comet. If you look up upwards from Sirius, your sight will intersect an imaginary line between Rigel and Canopus. Looking a bit south of this intersection there is a pair of dimmer, but still easy to see, stars. Phract and Wazn are the brightest stars in the constellation of the Dove.
Comet Lovejoy forms the apex of a triangle pointing towards Sirius with these stars as the triangles base.
To the unaided eye the comet will look like a dim fuzzy dot. In binoculars it is decent sized fuzzy ball, about a quarter the size of the Moon, and a telescope a very obvious fuzzy ball, perhaps with a hint of a tail. You may need to find it in binoculars first before it is apparent to the unaided eye. There is no comparable cluster or nebula in the region to confuse it with.
The printable charts above can help you with your quest. For telescope users, the image will be upside down compared to the charts. Remember, when looking for the comet allow at least 5 minutes for your eyes to adjust and become dark adapted. Here's some hints on dark adaption of your eyes. If using the charts above, cover your torch with red cellophane so as to not destroy your night vision.
As well, Mars will be low on the horizon with the crescent Moon next to it, so Christmas night is the prefect time for a comet hunt! Have a merry one!