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A New Year Northern Comet…

Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere are enjoying quite a treat at the moment, as a comet – “Lovejoy” (yes, another one! Terry Lovejoy keeps discovering them!) – is just becoming bright enough to see with the naked eye from a dark location. Long exposure photographs taken through telescopes show it has a vivid green coma, and is developing a rather beautiful feathery tail too, making it look a lot like a good old-fashioned “broom star”, as you can see from this absolutely beautiful photo taken by ace comet photographer Rolando Ligustri

928fa309ea20409afd8f32492ad531c2.1824x0_q100_watermark_watermark_opacity-40_watermark_position-1_watermark_text-Copyright astroligu60

Comet Lovejoy is currently too far south for us northerners to see it; it never gets above our horizon…

now beneath horizon

…so all we can do is drool over the lovely pictures of it being posted on Facebook and Twitter from southern observers, like this one…

jeanette lamb

Photo courtesy of Jeanette Lamb, see bottom of image for details.

Oh, look at that…. beautiful photo Jeanette, well done! 🙂

So, the question many of you will be asking is “WHEN IS IT OUR TURN UP HERE IN THE NORTH????” Well, the comet is slowly moving northwards, but so slowly that it will remain hidden from us for another week or so yet, but I reckon that if it’s clear on Christmas Eve we might… MIGHT… get our first look at it then, and if it keeps brightening the way it is doing we might get to see a naked eye comet in our northern sky by the New Year. Fingers crossed!

Assuming Lovejoy behaves itself (which comets really don’t like doing) and doesn’t turn off, or fall apart, or get trampled to death by a herd of rampaging space unicorns, where do we look for it when it finally peeps its head over our horizon? And what might we see?

Firstly, the key to finding this comet is a constellation familiar to all sky-watchers, whether they live north or south of the equator: Orion.

orion lines

Orion is very easy to find for northern hemisphere astronomers at this time of year. You just have to go out at around half past seven, face the east, and it’s right there in front of you…

orion 730pm now

Seriously, with that hourglass shape, and the line of three blue stars across its centre, all of the same brightness, you can’t miss it, and it’s one of the few constellations non-astronomers have seen in the sky that they recognise, even if they don’t really know what it is.

As I said, the comet is going to track up past Orion, to its right, and will be in that part of the sky until the end of January, so even though we can’t see the comet itself yet it makes sense to get out and start familiarising yourself with this region of the sky now. Look for the bright star Sirius (actually the brightest in the whole sky) to Orion’s lower left, and two star clusters to its upper right, the V-shaped Hyades cluster, and the smaller, tighter Pleiades cluster. Good idea to learn the names of the brightest stars in Orion itself too. This simple chart will help…

orion area lines and names

The comet is going to first appear beneath Orion around Christmas Eve, but although Orion will be visible in the sky from around 7pm on that night, you’ll have to go out later – or stay out longer – if you’re going to see it then, because the comet will still be so far south that it won’t creep above our local horizon until half past ten, and will be at its highest for the whole night only an hour later. When it does appear, here is where it will be…

Orion comet 1130pm xmas eve

As you can see it will be very low, barely scraping above the horizon, so any trees or buildings you have on your southern horizon might hide it. At this point you’ll probably only see it if you can get somewhere quite high, above local hills and buildings, with a flat horizon, and no lights. Even then it will probably only look like a small smudge in binocs. It might be faintly visible to the naked eye, if we’re lucky, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much for that; there’s so much mist and murk just above the horizon that the comet will look dimmer than it actually is. But sweep the area shown with your binoculars, or small telescope, and if you see it, great! If you don’t, well, be patient… 🙂

In the days after Christmas Eve the comet will be a little higher each night, slowly moving up away from the horizon as it drifts beneath Orion and then up into the sky, heading (roughly) towards those star clusters. Here are some VERY simple finder charts showing where it will be…

collage comet

…but a little more detail would be nice, right? That’s why, last week, when I was out hoping to see the Geminid meteor shower (and managed to bag a few) I took photos of this area of the sky too, so I could make a realistic finder chart for the comet, showing its track across the sky. Here it is, I hope you find it useful…

wide s

See? It will track up from beneath Orion and move on up to the right of the constellation. Here’s a closer look at its track…

pano13 track dec 31 jan 9 50 percent

… but everyone, please bear in mind these are just “rough guide” charts, just good enough to help you look for the comet with your naked eye or binocs. Other, far more accurate (and far prettier!) charts are available online.

As it moves northwards, amateur astronomers who know the sky like the backs of their hands will be able to find the comet easily, hopping from star to star, but of you’re not familiar with the sky what do you do? Well, if the comet is visible to the naked eye, all you will have to do is look in that direction and look for a small, misty smudge, and that will be the comet. If Lovejoy isn’t bright enough to be seen with just the naked eye, you’ll need to sweep the sky with binoculars, which is harder than it sounds. You don’t realise how huge the sky is, and how many stars are spattered across it, until you sweep it with binoculars! And there are lots of faint smudges and puffs if light in it which knowledgeable amateur astronomers recignise as galaxies, nebulae and star clusters but look like comets to beginners. Luckily, there are a couple of nights when the comet’s location will be easy to pin down using stars in the area as guides…

Dec 31 midnight beneath Rigel

On New Year’s Eve the comet will very helpfully lie right beneath the star Rigel, so all you have to do is find that star in your binoculars and then slowly, SLOWLY, pan them down until the comet pops into view.

And then, a week or so later, when the comet will visible right after sunset, by the time the sky is nice and dark it will be at one corner of an almost perfect celestial triangle…

Jan 6 6pm triangle

Of course, if you have a smartphone, or tablet, you can find the comet’s position using any of the astronomy apps available. If you’re not a smartphone owner, there will be more detailed charts available online by then, too.

Ok, that’s where it will be, but what will it LOOK like? No idea, sorry, it’s impossible to predict that. It MIGHT be visible to the naked eye, and if it continues to brighten as it is doing at the moment it will be, but it might just turn off and let us all down… comets are good at doing that… so we’ll just have to wait and see. Will it have a tail? Don’t know, sorry! We’ll have to wait and see! All we know for sure is that it is coming, and will be with us in around a week’s time, so cross your fingers and hope Comet Lovejoy gives us all a New Year treat.

And if you want to have a go at photographing the comet, I have lots of advice about that on one of my other blogs, which you can find here

Right, that’s enough to get you going, I think. All being well, we should get our first look at Comet Lovejoy in a week or so’s time, but the weather will have to improve and the comet will have to behave itself, too. Keep checking this blog for more details, and updates, and if you’re on Facebook or Twitter there are lots of great comet groups and observers on those social media sites you can follow to keep in touch with developments too.

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