In the mood for some comet watching? Ian Musgrave explains how to locate Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, known as Lovejoy, in the Australian sky.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, the Christmas Comet, is brightest this Sunday, January 11. Not that it will be obvious, at a predicted magnitude 4.5 it will be quite dim and be only marginally brighter than the days before or after. However, it is bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye in dark sky locations during the next two weeks, and people with good eyesight may glimpse it with the unaided eye from relatively unpolluted suburban locations.
What follows is a simple guide to finding the comet, with printable star charts. The comet is very easy to see in binoculars or a small telescope, so if you have them, this guide will help you too.
Printable black and white horizon chart facing north an hour and a half after sunset showing the location of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy as seen from Adelaide. Similar views will be seen from Southern Hemisphere locations at the equivalent local time.
Animation showing the path of the comet an hour and a half after sunset. simulated in Stellarium.
Sketch of comet Lovejoy near the globular cluster M79 on 29 December made using 10x50 binoculars
With the Moon waning and rising later the comet, which is brightening as it heads towards maximum brightness on January 11, should now be easily seen as a dimmish fuzzy star with the unaided eye. In binoculars it looks like a large ball of cotton wool and in even small telescopes a thin faint tail can be seen.
For the next 7-8 days the obvious constellations of Orion and Taurus are your guide to finding the comet. The comet is currently around magnitude 4.8, and may get as bright as 4.5 or hopefully even brighter.
Printable black and white binocular chart an hour and a half after sunset showing the location of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy. The circle is approximately the field of view of 10x50 binoculars.
Comet Lovejoy on 29 December 2014, before the rising Moon made it too hard to see. The comet is above Orion and Canis Major. This is a stack of 10x15 second images taken with my Canon IXUS, ASA 400.
If you go out when the sky is dark (a little after 10:20 pm daylight saving time in most of Australia), and look north-east you will see the distinctive shape of the "saucepan" almost dead ahead of you.
Just above this is a bright-blue white star, Rigel.
For the next few days if you sweep your eyes (or binoculars) north you will follow a trail of brightish stars, these form the celestial river Eridanus. After you have passed the fifth star and before the sixth is the space where the comet will pass. There are no bright globular clusters in this area so the comet is distinctive as a fuzzy star to the unaided eye, and a large fuzzy ball in binoculars or telescopes. You may need to locate it in binoculars before you are confident of a visual sighting. If you watch on consecutive days you can see the comet move.
From around the 8th start your sweep at the saucepan itself, then from the 10th the comet is nestled between the legs of Taurus the Bull. Start your sweep at blue-white Bellatrix, the bright star below and to the north of the saucepan (not the bright red Betelgeuse below and to the south), towards the like of stars that marks Orion's shield and then on further to a U shaped group of faintish stars, just above the obvious inverted "V" that is the head of Taurus. The "U" shape is where the comet will be at its brightest.
Once again, 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.
Comet Lovejoy imaged with a remote telescope at Siding Springs Observatory on January 3, 2015.
Good comet hunting!
Ian Musgrave is Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide.