It looks like this coming weekend is going to be THE best time for UK skywatchers to look for Comet Lovejoy. Just as the comet is at its closest to us, and showing off its tail to us at at the best angle, a cold spell is about to begin, and clear, frosty skies are forecast for most of the UK for the next few nights, and with no Moon in the way to drown out the comet, so all those things considered this really could be the best chance we get to see it.
Ok, so what will you need to find and enjoy Comet Lovejoy over the next few nights?
First of all, as is the case with trying to look at anything in the night sky, if it’s at all possible you want to be somewhere away from streetlights and tall buildings, because both will block your view of the sky and of the comet. If you try and look for the comet from somewhere with lots of artificial lights then you’re really going to struggle, your sky will be so bright. And of course those tall buildings could physically hide the comet. So, if you possibly can, get to somewhere with a “big” sky – or at least a good view of the southern sky – and away from those pesky lights. Out of town, into the countryside is best – find a quiet lay-by, or a farm gateway – but if you’re unable to do that then try to get to a park or a school playing field. You’ll be amazed by the difference.
Secondly, I strongly – STRONGLY – advise you to have a pair of binoculars handy this weekend, because although the comet is now visible to the naked eye through binoculars it will look brighter, bigger and clearer. Its subtle green colour will be enhanced through binoculars too, and you’ll be able to see its faint tail. So seriously, if you go out comet hunting take some binoculars with you. You’ve probably got a pair stuck in a box in the garage or loft, or under the stairs anyway, so use them! And if you don’t have a pair of your own, borrow some.
Finally, wrap up warm – coat, hat, scarf, the works! It’s going to be perishing cold tonight, and you’re going to be out in the open for a while, not moving about much, so dress appropriately.
To recap, this should be you when you go comet-hunting over the coming weekend…
Ok, that’s where you want to be, what you will need to have with you, and how to dress … where will the actual comet be in the sky?
Right, first of all, don’t worry about finding the comet – it’s going to be easy! No, it is, trust me on this. Often comets are hard to find, because they’re very faint and lurking in unremarkable areas of the sky. But Lovejoy is a naked eye object, and it is in an area of the sky that is almost ridiculously easy to find – close, in fact, to one of the most famous groups of stars in the sky! And because there’s no Moon you will be able to see the comet in all its glory. 🙂
So, let’s get started. First of all you need to be looking for a pattern of stars called “ORION”. If you have ANY interest in the night sky at all you will already have seen Orion because it has a very distinctive shape – it looks like an hourglass – and has a very distinctive line of three stars at its centre, known famously as “Orion’s Belt”. Orion is the key to finding Comet Lovejoy, not just this weekend but for the forseeable future, so once you’ve found it that’s most of the hard work done. The most obvious thing in the sky in that direction (apart from the Moon!) is a short line of three blue stars, all about the same brightness. This is actually a very famous feature in the sky – “Orion’s Belt”, and it forms part of, surprisingly, the constellation of Orion. Once you’ve found Orion’s Belt you’re halfway to finding the Comet!
To find Orion, just look towards the south east at around 6pm – and there it will be, right in front of you!
If you can’t find that right away – and if you’re an absolute beginner that might be the case, so don’t worry! – you can find Orion by finding the Big Dipper and looking to its right, like this…
Found it? Ok, let’s put some lines and labels on that part of the sky so it makes more sense…
Ok, having found Orion you’re going to go “star hopping” – that means you’re going to move up from Orion, hopping between a couple of other celestial objects, until you’re in the area of sky where the comet can be found.
Having found Orion, continue the line of the Belt UP and to the RIGHT until you come to a “v” pattern of stars lying on its side, making it look like the point of a spear. This is a famous star cluster called “The Hyades”, and when you have more time you should explore it through your binoculars because it’s really pretty! But this time, KEEP GOING UP until you come to another cluster of stars, smaller and more compact this time. This is one of the most famous star clusters in the sky – “The Pleiades”, or “The Seven Sisters”. Once you’ve found this star cluster you WILL find Comet Lovejoy, I promise you.
If you’ve got this far you’re almost there, because Comet Lovejoy is very close to the Pleiades.
…and here’s where it will be! Having found the Pleiades, just look to the cluster’s right and you’ll be in the right area! You should see the comet as a small grey-green smudge, looking a lot like an out of focus star. If you can’t pick it out with just your eyes, lift those binoculars up and scan that area of the sky with them until you see the comet. It will look like a round smudge, more grey than green, like a small round hazy patch. Use this zoomed in chart to show you where to look on different nights…
But don’t expect to see a bright head and a beautiful tail trailing away from it – through your binoculars it will look like a big, roundish, greyish smudge in the pale blue sky, like a smeared, out of focus star, not at all like anything you will have seen on the internet, which is now groaning under the weight of stunning portraits of Lovejoy taken by experienced astronomy photographers, using mega-expensive cameras attached to their mega-expensive telescopes. If you see a smudge don’t be disappointed, congratulate yourself – you’ve found Comet Lovejoy!
And that’s it, really! Good luck looking for Lovejoy over the next few nights, it will be our best chance for a long time, I think. Of course, if you have a small telescope you should be looking a the comet through that too, not just binoculars. And if you want to try photographing the comet there are guides to how to do that here on this blog, just scroll down a few posts until you find one.
I hope you find the comet over the weekend – drop me a line if you do, it’s always nice to know if people find these posts useful! 🙂
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