Celestial News with Jimmy Westlake: Comet Lovejoy upstages ISON
Steamboat Springs — Ever since its discovery more than a year ago, anticipation has run high for the prospects of Comet ISON, named for the automated robotic telescope that first spied it, the International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON.
It certainly seemed to have the potential to be a spectacle in our skies after it passes less than one solar diameter from the sun’s fiery surface on Thanksgiving Day 2013. Even if not the “Comet of the Century,” Comet ISON was certainly expected to be the main celestial event this month as it falls ever closer to the sun.
Instead, we find ourselves squinting through binoculars and telescopes trying to spot the icy interloper ISON, with Thanksgiving Day less than three weeks away. Who would have imagined that another new comet would upstage the great and powerful ISON? It just goes to show you how wacky the world of comet astronomy can be.
Enter Comet Lovejoy, or Comet C/2013 R1, as astronomers like to call it. Comet Lovejoy is not destined to be a “comet of the century,” but it is currently outshining Comet ISON in our predawn sky. I was able to glimpse Comet Lovejoy without any optical aid on Sunday around 4 a.m. It should continue to brighten and become even more obvious in our sky as it makes its way across our constellations of Leo, Leo Minor and Ursa Major this month.
Comet Lovejoy is a newcomer to our skies, discovered by renowned Australian comet hunter Terry Lovejoy on Sept. 7. It is expected to peak out around fourth magnitude near the end of November. In a dark sky, that should make it obvious if not easy to see with the naked eye. Of course, binoculars are wonderful for enhancing the view of fuzzy little comets. Telescopes magnify too much and make comets harder to see.
Comet Lovejoy passes closest to Earth on Nov. 19 at a safe distance of about 38.1 million miles. After that, it makes its closest pass by the sun, called perihelion, on Christmas Day, at a distance of 0.877 AUs or 81.6 million miles.
Bright moonlight will interfere with viewing faint comets Nov. 15 – 26, so plan on getting up early in the next few mornings to do your observing. Comet Lovejoy will be high up in the eastern sky by 5 a.m., before the break of dawn. For maps and photos, check out the NASA website http://www.spaceweather.com.
I’ve not given up on Comet ISON quite yet, but it is clear that it will not be the dazzler that others and I had hoped. It’s nice of Comet Lovejoy to swoop in and help wipe away our tears.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out “Jimmy’s 2014 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at http://www.jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of celestial events that you and your family can have fun watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.
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Witches and goblins and ghosts, oh my!