There’s a comet visible with the naked eye in the northern night skies. Comet Q2 Lovejoy showed up right before New Year’s and will remain with us until the end of January, but then won’t be seen again for another 8,000 years.
Observers in the northern hemisphere will be able to see the comet most nights during the month of January, as long as the moon isn’t too bright. Some of the prime observing nights are happening right now.
The comet will reach its closest approach to Earth on January 7 when it’s 44 million miles away. That’s when it will shine brightest in the night sky, according to Sky and Telescope. And don’t fret if it’s overcast where you are — it will continue to shine bright for the next two weeks.
Australian amateur astronomer, Terry Lovejoy, discovered the comet in August and it’s the fifth comet he’s found since 2007. The comet is not just attracting astronomers, however.
Its beauty is also a target for photographers like Justin Ng who took the photo above, featured on Space.com, on Dec. 29 in Singapore. And astro-photographer Dieter Willasch, based in Germany, who recently took the image of the comet at the top of this post.
Phil Plait, astronomer and author of the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate, recently tweeted another spectacular shot:
Since amateur astronomer Lovejoy spotted his latest find, the comet has grown thousands of times brighter. As it moves toward the sun, it’s also moving across the sky. It only recently became visible to observers in the northern hemisphere.
At its brightest on January 7, the comet will be about as bright as the faintest star in the constellation called the Little Dipper. So, a good way to tell if you will be able to see the comet with your naked eye is if you can see all four stars in the Little Dipper.
Although the comet is bright enough to see with the naked eye, it’s still pretty faint, warns amateur astronomer and senior editor of Sky and Telescope, Alan M. MacRobert.
“The comet is not bright,” MacRobert told Business Insider in an email. “You’ll need to know the exact point on the sky to examine, and bring binoculars.” Without binoculars, the comet will just look like a faint star.
Throughout a single night the comet will remain in roughly the same spot on the sky, shining like an new, green star. It won’t streak across the sky like a meteor. The comet’s position will, however, change each night.
This map from Sky and Telescope will help you figure out where the comet it on any given night for the rest of January. The yellow line shows the comets path night to night, the numbers marking the date:
The values at the top of the chart are called right ascension, which are the longitude coordinates astronomers use to help navigate the night sky.)
The dates on the tick marks are for midnight in Universal Time, which correlates to 7 pm EST for the previous day. You can figure out where the constellations will be according to your time and location using the very handy free, open source digital planetarium called Stellarium.
Using Stellarium, here’s what New York City’s night sky (if you could see stars well here) would look like around 8:05 pm, January 8 looking southward. Orion’s belt is circled in red:
Like any celestial event, the best way to see Comet Q2 Lovejoy is to get far away from city lights on a clear night, so check your weather forecast before heading out. The forecast for New York January 7 will be sunny.
If you look at the Sky and Telescope map above, you’ll see that between during its closest approach on January 7 EST (January 8 on the map above), the comet will be visible directly east of one of the easiest features to find in the sky: Orion’s belt.
So, if you’re out that night, look for the three bright stars perfectly in a row that represent Orion’s belt, and thens look slightly east. It might be useful to use an app like Google Sky View on your smartphone to help you pinpoint the speck of light.
With a little effort, you’ll see the comet that Earth won’t see again for another 8,000 years.
With binoculars or a telescope, you’ll have a good chance of seeing the comet’s green glow, which is created when ultraviolet light from the sun interacts with diatomic carbon molecules — two carbon atoms in a single molecule — in the comet.
If it’s overcast, or you can’t get away from light pollution, there will be two live observing sessions on January 6 and 11 hosted by The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0.
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