Surprisingly Bright Comet Lovejoy Dazzles Skywatchers
Comet Lovejoy can be easily spotted using binoculars or small telescope, but this is what it looks like up close!
If, like me, you have been fascinated with the appearance of Comet Lovejoy in the night sky this month, you may have tried to track it down with a pair of binoculars or telescope. Using just a 250mm lens on my DSLR was enough for me to pinpoint the interplanetary vagabond glowing beneath the constellation of Orion. Although mildly chuffed with my very amateur astrophotography attempt, seasoned astronomers are having a field day with a comet whose brightness has outstripped expectations.
This stunning view of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), for example, was captured by astronomer Nick Howes using the Tzec Maun Network's access to the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. The observation was made on Jan. 8 around the time the comet made closest approach to Earth. Although "close approach" was a distant 44 million miles away between the orbits of Earth and Mars, it was the closest C/2014 Q2 had been to Earth in 8,000 years.
Discovered last August by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2 can currently be seen passing through the boundaries of the constellation Eridanus, near Orion. SPACE.com has a handy guide and map so you too can track down Lovejoy's beautiful blue-green fuzz.
As can be seen in Howes' observation of Lovejoy, the comet has some wonderful structure in its tail. Comets are composed of a solid nucleus (ices, rock and dust), coma (the dust and gas surrounding the nucleus) and a tail. Often comets will appear to have two tails - charged particles follow the sun's interplanetary magnetic field, whereas neutral particles are ‘blown' away with the solar wind.
Late last year, the European Rosetta mission landed the Philae lander on a comet for the first time in history, so many cometary mysteries are currently being revealed. But as we look at Comet Lovejoy as it continues to make its journey through the inner solar system, we can only imagine what the nucleus must look like up-close; ice being heated by the sun, outgassing and spluttering vapor and dust into space.