In case you haven’t heard, there’s a “new” comet that’s just now brightening to the point where it can be seen (in a dark sky) by the naked eye, and should be visible in binoculars even from the city.
Comet Lovejoy is visible over pretty much all of the Northern Hemisphere. If you can see Orion (one of the brightest and most easily distinguished constellations in the sky) you will probably be able to see Comet Lovejoy over the next couple of weeks.
Right now it’s down “below” Orion’s feet, but it will be coming up past Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades during January. It should brighten even more over the next week or so before starting to fade. You can find plenty of sites out there with maps and suggestions on spotting it – try the Sky & Telescope page for starters.
Tonight Comet Lovejoy went right past the globular cluster M79. All over the web tonight there have been popping up some truly spectacular pictures, such as this one from Chris & Dawn Schur. (Trust me, open that picture up!) It was taken from Payson, Arizona, which is out a long way from any city lights, about eighty miles northeast of Phoenix.
While the S&T article says that they were able to see Comet Lovejoy from their light-polluted location (in the Boston area), I wasn’t so lucky tonight. I went out a couple of times and kept coming back in to check the star charts to figure out where I was looking and where the comet was. It’s pretty easy to “star hop” from Rigel (the really bright star that’s Orion’s right foot) down into the bright stars of the constellation Lepus.
From IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
Using binoculars, you can find that pattern of bright stars that make up the body of Lepus pretty easily, particularly the top row of stars (θ, η, ξ, α, μ, λ, κ) that by themselves look like a mini-sized Big Dipper. (No, this isn’t the Little Dipper either – it just looks sort of dipper-esque to me!) From there it’s pretty easy to see where β and ε are, and from there it’s a piece of cake to see where M79 is.
Over the next few nights, Comet Lovejoy will be moving toward the upper right corner and past Orion, but tonight it was right by M79, so if I could spot M79…
No joy. We’ve got some high haze moving in as the front of a cold storm that’s going to last a couple of days (they’re expecting SNOW in Las Vegas for New Year’s!). That haze, combined with the bright quarter moon, combined with the normal Los Angeles mega-ultra-gonzo light pollution levels, didn’t let me positively identify either M79 or Comet Lovejoy.
It should have been right there… I could spot all of the stars I was using for guidelines and even the next dimmer layer of stars that aren’t shown on the chart above, but I never did see the dimmer, more diffuse comet or globular cluster.
It’s well known in observing that the best low-light detection in the eye is off to the sides. It’s called “averted vision” and you use it by looking just a bit off to one side, then concentrating on what you see at the corner or side of your field of view. Doing that I thought that I might have just barely, kinda sorta seen two fuzzy patches where they were supposed to be — but not enough so that I would swear to it in court.
Oh, well. It’s too late and too cold to disassemble the big 8″ scope, haul it out into the front yard, set it up, then reverse the process. Maybe after this next batch of clouds clears toward the weekend, if I can’t see it yet in the binoculars, I’ll haul out the big scope and/or head toward darker skies.
How about you? Now that I’ve given you the road map and clues, is anyone else spotting Comet Lovejoy yet?
Let me know if you do, and I’ll keep you updated on my progress.