Dubbed the Christmas Comet
Some folks theorize that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet, but the comet visible in Southwest Florida this Christmas season won’t be the kind of celestial event that would make the Magi hit the road with a load of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Comet Lovejoy will be barely visible to the naked eye, though it will be easily visible through binoculars and small telescopes and well worth checking out.
“It’s not going to be really phenomenal, but it’s coming” said Heather Preston, planetarium director at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. “Right now, it’s a binocular object: If you have a pair of binoculars and point in the right direction, you’ll see it. It’s hard to see now, but as it brightens, it will be easier, and, hopefully, you can see a tail.”
Designated C/2014 Q2, Comet Lovejoy was discovered Aug. 17 by amateur Australian comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (it’s his fifth comet discovery).
At that time, it was a 15th magnitude object, far too faint for the naked eye to see (remember, the lower the magnitude, the brighter the object; Spica, the 15th brightest star, shines at a magnitude of 1.04, while Sirius, the brightest star, shines at a magnitude of -1.46, and the planet Venus can shine at a magnitude of -4.5).
Since its discovery, the comet has brightened considerably, to a magnitude of about 6, the limit of naked-eye visibility, and is expected to reach a magnitude of 5 or 4.
Comets, of course, don’t zip across the sky like meteors; they seem to be motionless against the background of the fixed stars.
On Christmas night, Comet Lovejoy will be low in the southern sky just west of Sirius, the brightest object in that direction.
Over the next few weeks, Comet Lovejoy will climb higher in the sky.
Probably the best time to look for Comet Lovejoy will be for two weeks beginning Jan. 7, when it makes its closest approach to Earth (44 million miles).
“Finding it is really a process of elimination,” said Michael Bakich, senior editor of Astronomy magazine. “Start with a chart and zone in on bright stars with your binoculars or telescope. Then you match what you’re seeing with the chart to see if there’s anything extra there, anything that looks fuzzy. Through 7×50 or 10×50 binoculars, it will be a fuzzy disc, maybe with a tail, maybe not. It’ll show up better with a 4-inch or larger telescope.”
Perihelion, the closest approach to the sun, is Jan. 30; the comet will get brighter as it gets closer to the sun and just past perihelion; then it will grow dimmer as it starts its long journey back out to space — its next trip through our solar system will be in 8,000 years.
Although Comet Lovejoy won’t be a dazzling celestial light show, the pros are looking forward to it.
“As far as astronomers are concerned, this is a really bright comet,” Bakich said. “Most comets that pass through our solar system are 10,000 to a million times fainter than this one; we can follow those, but there’s not a lot of light, and we can’t do much with them.
“This comet has plenty of light; we can find out what it’s made of, what it’s outgassing. The public might be disappointed with Comet Lovejoy, but for astronomers, it’s a wonder.