For the past few weeks amateur astronomers and stargazers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying a real treat – a comet, bright enough to be seen through small telescopes and even binoculars, has been moving across the southern sky, delighting everyone with its beautiful green hue and delicate, lacy tail. Up here in the northern hemisphere Comet Lovejoy has been too far below our horizon to allow us to see it, so we’ve just had to drool over the beautiful images of it being posted online every day. But finally, finally, Comet Lovejoy is moving up into the northern sky, and it’s our turn! Yaaaay!
Inevitably, the media are now starting to catch up with this story, and there are some hugely misleading and hyped-up “Christmas Comet to race across the sky!” type headlines appearing online, and they’ll be in print soon too, I’m sure. And as I’ll explain later, some of the crazies are latching on to the comet too, predicting (as they have done for every high profile comet of the last decade) it will bring death, doom and disaster to us all, the pathetic losers. So, to counter all the inaccurate information, and the BS of the Apocalypseporn-worshipping tin foil hat-wearing brigade, I thought I’d together a very simple, very easy-to-understand, fear mongering free guide to seeing, and enjoying, Comet Lovejoy.
First, some basics.
WHAT ARE COMETS? Well, comets are members of the solar system, just like the planets and asteroids, but their orbits are different. Planets (and many asteroids) have orbits around the Sun which are almost circular, so they spend most of the time at the same distance from the Sun.
As you can see from the image above, comet orbits, in comparison, are more like long, long loops, which means that most of the time a comet is well away from the Sun, but occasionally, and very briefly, they come in towards the Sun then whip around it and head back off into deep space again. When they are close to the Sun naturally they get hotter than usual, so their ices melt (sublime, actually, but don’t worry about it) and vast amounts of gas and dust locked up in their icy bodies is released, forming a glowing head and, sometimes (but not always) a long, glowing tail, too.
Until relatively recently we thought comets were basically just “dirty snowballs”, but after visits to several comets by unmanned spacecraft we now know they are MUCH more complicated than that! Here’s one of the latest images from the European ROSETTA spacecraft of a comet called “67P” (for short!) and as you can see it looks nothing like a mere “dirty snowball”..!
WHAT DO COMETS LOOK LIKE IN THE SKY? Many people think (and tell others!) that comets whoosh across the sky, like a brighter, bigger version of a shooting star. This is – sadly, for astronomers – utter, utter rubbish. (I blame The Waterboys, personally; in their famous song “The Whole Of The Moon” they use the immortal line “She came like a comet, blazing her trail” which does rather suggest comets dash across the sky, trailing smoke and fire…) And if you look at old pictures of comets – engravings, woodcuts, paintings, etc – the comets shown on those do look a lot like they’re whooshing across the heavens, don’t they?
…but the truth is rather different. Comets DO move across the sky, but sloooooooooowly… They don’t whoosh or dash across it. They only move by a small amount each night, so when you look at one – with your naked eye or through binoculars or a small telescope – it appears to be perfectly still, just a fuzzy patch of light, a bit like an out of focus star. You might notice it had moved a small amount if you looked at it again a few hours later, or the next night, but most comets move so slowly across the sky they take weeks or even months to cross the heavens. So if you’re planning on going out to look for Comet Lovejoy you’re going to be looking for something IN the sky, like a star, a planet or the Moon, not something moving across it like a plane, a satellite or shooting star.
And if you’re expecting to see something huuuge like this painted on the sky…
…then you’re in for a disappointment. Most comets are very small visually, and need a pair of binoculars or a telescope to see them. Occasionally a more impressive one appears which is big enough to be seen easily with the naked eye, and in recent years there have been a handful, but they are few and far between to be honest. Comet Lovejoy is visible to the naked eye now, to our southern friends, but it just looks like an out of focus star. If we northern hemisphere dwellers are VERY lucky, by the time it has moved a bit further away from the horizon Comet Lovejoy should still be visible to our naked eyes, and on a clear, dark, Moon-free mid- to late-January night we might even see it as a short stubby misty patch in the sky if it has grown a noticeable tail by then, making it look like a small section of an airplane’s vapour trail. But it will not be slap-across-the-face-obvious, even from the darkest depths of the countryside, and if you live in a city or town you’ll probably need binoculars to see it through all the light pollution and murk.
So, to summarise, what you are looking for is a small, quite faint, misty smudge in the sky, moving a little way across the sky each night. What you are not going to see is a bright light swooshing across the heavens trailing smoke and fire.
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR COMET LOVEJOY? Ok, time for a very basic lesson in stargazing.
First of all, where you plan on observing from is VERY important.
If you live on an estate, or just in a built-up area, well, the odds are against you. You’ll be surrounded by so many lights – streetlights, security lights, illuminated advertising hoardings, etc – that you simply won’t have a sky dark enough to see the comet in. And any tall buildings around you might block out the comet too. If you can get somewhere more open, somewhere darker, like a park or a school playing field, your chances will improve because your sky will be darker due to the lack of lights, and you’ll see more OF it too, with fewer buildings around you. But to have the best chance of seeing the comet (and anything in the night sky, really) you need to get out of town and away from the lights completely. Find a lay-by or a side road or a quiet farm gateway somewhere, and you’ll be stunned by how BIG the sky is, and many more stars you can see in it – and you will have the best view of the comet from there too.
But where will the comet be in the sky?
On the next clear evening, head outside around 6.30pm, look to the east, and you’ll see these stars just above the horizon…
Can you see that line of three stars in the middle there, just above the horizon? That’s a very famous group of stars, one of the most famous in the whole sky in fact. You’ll have seen it before, without knowing what it actually was, I’m sure, just as you’ll have heard of it…
Yep, that’s it – “Orion’s Belt”. The Belt is a line of three blue-white stars, all of roughly equal brightness, which cuts across the centre of the constellation of Orion. But if you’re looking at half past six you won’t be able to see all of the constellation, you’ll just see the top. By eleven o’clock the whole of the constellation will have risen into the sky, looking like this…
Now you can see that Orion looks like an hourglass. Orion is actually the main winter constellation, and like all constellations its brightest stars have their own names. You can also use the stars of the Belt to help find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky…
Orion is meant to be a hunter, dominating the winter sky. If you could click your fingers and see the “artwork” behind the stars you’d see something like this…
Yes, that really is a unicorn beside Orion, and a hare beneath him!
But why am I banging on about Orion so much? Because Comet Lovejoy is going to spend the next couple of weeks moving up from beneath Orion and then passing it, that’s why, so you’ll need to get to know this part of the sky at least reasonably well if you’re going to find the comet, especially if you’re an absolute beginner.
Right, having found Orion, next you need to find the constellation of LEPUS, The Hare. It’s not hard to find because it lies directly beneath Orion, and its major stars form a box of stars which looks kind of like a squashed rectangle…
From now until the New Year, Comet Lovejoy is going to be moving first towards and then past that little box of stars…
After that, it will start to fairly scoot across the sky, higher and further to Orion’s right every night. This chart I made shows the comet’s path from Christmas Eve to the middle of January, and it uses an actual photo of the stars instead of drawn dots so hopefully it will be more realistic and useful…
Ok, so that’s where to look for the comet, but what are you actually looking for..?
If you’re interested in this comet, and keen to find it, you’ll already have seen lots of gorgeous photos of it online, images like this one, taken by the brilliant astro-photographer Jeanette Lamb…
…and this one, by legendary astro-photograher Damian Peach…
Wow! Imagine seeing THAT through your binoculars or telescope!!
Well, that’s all you can do, imagine it, because Comet Lovejoy looks NOTHING like that visually! Why? Because as beautiful as photos like that are, they are also very misleading. Those images were taken through telescopes, so the comet and details in its tail are greatly magnified. They are also long exposure photos, taken over many many minutes by very sensitive cameras, so the images show incredibly faint detail the eye can never hope to see. Astro-photographers even “stack” many separate images together to make a single high resolution image, which looks spectacular but doesn’t reflect what the eye would actually see. If you know that from the start, the images aren’t misleading at all – astronomers and sky-watchers marvel at the work of people like Jeanette and Damian – but if you’re new to astronomy, and think they are single pictures taken by cameras simply pointing at the sky, well, yes, they can be misleading.
No, what you will see will look nothing like those images. What you will see with your naked eye will be basically a fuzzy, greenish patch in the sky, like a big out of focus star.
Image: Stanislav-Kaniansky (from Space Weather.com)
It might develop a small tail, making it look more like a small greenish tadpole in the sky, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.
As for the view through a telescope, or binoculars, it will look something like this…
Image: Michael-Boschat from Spaceweather.com
Imagine a few grains of green chalk on a piece of black paper… now imagine smudging those grains with your finger tip to make a small, round smudge… well, that’s what Lovejoy will look like magnified through binocs or a small telescope.
Now, if we’re really lucky and Lovejoy develops a nice tail, it ***MIGHT*** look something like this to the naked eye by mid- to late January…
…and then the view through binocs or a small telescope could be lovely, with the tail clearly visible, but there’s absolutely no guarantee of that, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. But that’s all part of the fun of comet hunting!
I say “fun”, when what I really mean is “pain, anguish and torment”, because comets are notoriously unreliable and unpredictable, so much so that they’re often compared to cats; in the past, ones that promised to be bright ended up fizzling out (mention no names… ISON…), while others which promised little ended up being more impressive than predicted. For Comet Lovejoy really all you can do is try to see it whenever you can, and just take what you’re given. And of course you’re totally at the mercy of the weather too. And if there’s a bright Moon in the sky that will wash out the comet, or reduce it to a whisper of light in the sky. But don’t let those things put you off. Just get out there, look for it, with whatever you have, and enjoy whatever you see.
But if seeing Comet Lovejoy isn’t enough, and you want to photograph it, what do you do?
Well, there is a very full and comprehensive guide to comet photography on one of my other blogs, which you can find here, but the basics are:
* You will need a camera which can take time exposures of several seconds, and can be set to a high ISO rating (that’s what used to be called “Film Speed”!)
* Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.
* Point it at the area of sky Comet Lovejoy is in.
* With the camera’s ISO set at a high value (1600 ISO or higher is best) and its lens open at its widest aperture (that’s the “F” number, and you want it set to the smallest value, i.e. f2 or f3 is better for night sky photography than f5 or f7) take exposures of between a couple of seconds and ten seconds. Depending on the focal length of your lens (that’s the number in mm on the lens) you will either record the comet and the stars around it as points of light or short lines. If your photograph shows the stars as lines, try a shorter exposure, and keep shortening it until you get points instead of trails.
* Load your photos on to your computer and use whatever photo processing software you have to
mess about with them process them – changing the levels, the contrast and brightness etc – until you have something you’re pleased with, and which shows the comet at its best. Don’t expect wonders the first time you try, but with a little patience and perseverence you should get an image of the comet worth keeping.
And finally… a warning…
As Comet Lovejoy climbs higher into the northern sky – and, hopefully, brightens too – it is soul-crushingly inevitable that it will be “hijacked” by the Nutter Community, and the blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets and YouTube channels of the tin foil hat-wearing fruit loop brigade will soon fill up with more crap than a blocked toilet.
Comet Lovejoy will soon be declared a threat to Earth, it will be blamed for anything and everything bad which happens in the world while it is in the sky, and it will be hailed as “Nibiru” by some too.
Dribbling, drooling lunatics the lot of them. Don’t fall for their lies. Don’t believe a word you hear from the mouths or read from the keyboards of these crackpots. These are the same losers who insist the Apollo missions were faked, that Bigfoot is real, and that there is a mysterious “Second Sun” out there in the solar system. Sitting in their musty-smelling bedrooms or their parents’ basements, tapping away at their computers, surrounded by fading X-Files posters and box sets of Conspiracy Theory dvds, they will tell you that Comet Lovejoy might change orbit and hit Earth, or shower us with lethal meteorites, or is actually an alien spaceship… and they have said exactly the same things about every bright comet discovered in the past decade. Amazingly, none of their looney tunes predictions has ever come true. But that doesn’t stop them, and without any shame or conscience they scare naive and scientifically ignorant people with their videos, blog posts and Tweets again and again, every time a new comet or asteroid is discovered. And they never apologise, ever, when their predictions are proved to be absolute BS.
It’s pathetic. They’re pathetic. Ignore them. The night sky and the universe are magical and wondrous enough without making up BS about them.
So, that’s it. Comet Lovejoy is in the sky now, as you read this, and you can find it, observe it and photograph it with the information here. Now get out there and hunt it down! 🙂
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