WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Lovejoy comet glows green in evening sky

Posted December 30, 2014
Updated January 8, 2015

The coma Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2 glows a bright green in this telescopic image from December 16, 2014  (Image: Damian Peach)

A rare cometary visitor is making its way through the inner solar system, and you can see it with a small telescope, decent binoculars or even the naked eye under dark conditions.

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy has brightened significantly since it was discovered in August. The coma, which is the atmosphere surrounding the icy nucleus, has grown and its tail has extended to about 229,000 miles (369,000 kilometers) as it nears its closest encounter with the sun at the end of January.

Comet Q2 is a very long-period comet that last passed through about 11,500 years ago. This visit will alter its path sufficiently to reduce that orbital period to about 8,000 years.

Amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy found the comet from his Thornlands, Queensland, Australia home, his fifth cometary discovery. The comet was about 4,000 times dimmer when he discovered it just before dawn on August 17, 2014. Lovejoy is well known among comet hunters for his techniques in modifying digital cameras to record the infrared light needed to detect deep space objects.

Comet Q2 rises above the treetops by about 7 p.m. in the constellation Lepus. The easiest way to find it is to wait until after 10 p.m. when Q2 is higher in the sky and the much brighter star Sirius has risen sufficiently to guide you. The comet will appear as a fuzzy white puffball through a small telescope or binoculars, though long-exposure photographs have revealed the coma to have a greenish glow coming from diatomic C2 gas fluorescing in sunlight.

Look to the southeast for the constellation Orion and its belt of three stars topped by orangey Betelgeuse. Look for the star Rigel in Orion’s right foot and beneath for the bright star Sirius. Rigel, Sirius and the comet form a right triangle midweek. The comet will appear a bit higher until Jan. 7, when Sirius, Rigel and the comet appear in an roughly equally spaced line.

Look for a break from these overcast conditions late tonight with partly cloudy conditions Wednesday and Thursday nights. Clouds are expected to return over the weekend, but the comet is expected to brighten through its closest approach to Earth on Jan. 7.

Though next week may offer even better viewing of Comet Lovejoy, don’t wait too long for your first view. As astronomer David H. Levy points out “Comets are like cats: They have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @rtphokie.
 

8 Comments

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  • Tony Rice Dec 30, 2014
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    Sorry make that 3am

  • Tony Rice Dec 30, 2014
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    View quoted thread


    Tonight (Dec 30) at 10pm Comet Q2 will be at azimuth: 167º, altitude 32º. Q2 will reach the highest point in the sky around 11:30pm and will move a little more than 16º north per each hour before setting shortly before 3pm.

    Hope that helps,
    Tony

    in general add about 3º azimuth and 2.5º altitude for each subsequent night at 10pm

    Dec 31, 10pm: Az 169º, Alt 35º
    Jan 1 10pm: 172º, Alt 37º

  • geraldpearce2 Dec 30, 2014

    Sky is very clear in Willow Spring, NC. Look to the southern sky And you will see Lovejoy . It's an awsome sight.

  • Kenneth Jones Dec 30, 2014
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    Hope we get a clear sky in the next couple of weeks. Looking forward to getting the scope out for a nice view....

  • Christopher Byrne Dec 30, 2014
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    That's cool stuff.

  • Tim Pearce Dec 30, 2014
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    I very seriously doubt it Scousler.... Very Seriously.

  • Tim Pearce Dec 30, 2014
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    On what azimuth of the compass might this phenomenon be ?

  • Steven Cousler Dec 30, 2014
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    We were in the stone age that last time this comet came around, will our civilization even survive till it's next visit?