Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

Back on August 17th, Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy disocvered a very nice Christmas gift for us all to enjoy… A bright comet that we have now unwrapped and are able to enjoy through the new year.

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy is currently passing through perihelion. While closest to the Sun and the Earth it will be at its brightest during the first couple weeks of January. For northern hemisphere observers the comet is currently low in the southern sky and getting brighter each day.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy as it appeared on the night of 20Dec2104, 28 x 4min with a Canon 6D and a TV-76mm ‘scope
You can not simply call this comet Lovejoy. Terry Lovejoy has been quite successful in catching comets, with five discoveries to his credit. As a result there are five comets that bear the name Lovejoy. To properly identify which comet you are referring to you should use the full designation, C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, as clumsy as that is in conversation.

The comet passes through perihelion on January 30th of 2015. For earthbound observers it will be at its brightest during the first weeks of January, reaching near 4th magnitude. It is currently visible around 5th magnitude in the faint constellation of Columba south of Orion. It has been visible without optical aid for a few weeks, as long as you have access to a dark sky and know where to look. As it brightens it will be easily visible, even rather obvious. With binoculars the view will be even better, a bright fuzzball with a wispy tail.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Orbit Diagram
The current position and orbital path of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy from the JPL Horizons system
One of the best parts is that this comet will be well placed for observing through its perihelion passage. Longtime comet observers are used to looking for comets in the sunset or in the dawn sky as they near perihelion. Comet C/2014 Q2 has a perihelion that is just outside of the Earth’s orbit, and happens to pass by just as our planet reaches that part of it’s orbit. This puts the comet high in the midnight sky. No trying to catch the comet in bright twilight before the Sun comes up.

The next thing you may note about the orbital diagram is that the comet has a high inclination to the ecliptic. Currently approaching from underneath the plane of the solar system, the comet will exit north of our Sun. The practical side of this, is that over the next few weeks the comet will move northwards across the sky, rising higher each night. While our friends down south have been enjoying nice views of the comet approaching perihelion, it is northern hemisphere observers that will be able to best view the comet after perihelion.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Path
The apparent path of comet C/2104 Q2 Lovejoy against the stars
The path of comet Lovejoy is shown in the diagram included here. The comet is plotted for today, December 28th at 0:00h. There is also a tick mark for January 11th near the top of the chart. A sweep with binoculars along this path will quickly locate the comet. There are no deep sky objects along this path that are bright enough to be confused with the comet. See a bright fuzzball? You found it.

One issue will be the bright Moon. Currently a waxing half phase, the Moon will be full on January 4th. This will make spotting the comet much more difficult and completely drown out the faint tail. By 9th or 10th the Moon will have waned enough to make comet viewing much more successful.

As January fades, so will comet C/2014 Q2. By the end of the month the comet will slip below unaided eye visibility, while staying within reach of binoculars through April or so. Sky watchers will be able to follow the comet for months betond that with the aid of a telescope. Enjoy the comet while you can, 8,000 years will pass before this comet returns to the inner solar system.

The Tail of Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

Taking the material I acquired last weekend, you can process a single frame, or process an animation. To bring out the tail a little better I converted the two hours of frames into an animated GIF. I also converted the frame to black and white and inverted it to show the fine detail.

The results are encouraging. Now… How well will this comet photograph when at its brightest in a couple weeks?

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Animation
An animation of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, 29 x 4min exposures with a Canon 6D and TV-76mm telescope

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

The first real product of Saturday’s imaging session on Mauna Kea. Processing comet images is a challenge (actually I am using far less correct language while I work on it). The problem is that comets move rapidly against the star field. This creates all sorts of issues when attempting to assemble a final image.

The single frame shown here is he product of 28 light frames and thirty calibration frames. The light frames used in this image were each 4 minutes long, accounting for nearly two hours of exposure total. There were a few more, but a few had to be discarded due to wind-shake of the telescope during the exposure.

The image below is processed to align on the comet as it moves against the background stars. During the two hours of exposures the comet moved appreciably. The stars are somewhat suppressed by using a sigma reject combine, but they are still there. Processing like this allows the details in the tail to be seen.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy as it appeared on the night of 20Dec2104, 28 x 4min with a Canon 6D and a TV-76mm ‘scope

With a set of images running for two hours taken without interruption other things can be done. One possibility is that these images can be animated, leading to another interesting product… Up next!

Shooting a Comet

It has been a while since the last good photographic comet. Since comet ISON disintegrated at perihelion a year ago, we have had few opportunities to get a really nice comet photo. It is the surprise of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy that changed this.

Better yet… The comet is well placed for photography in the late evening and early morning sky. While fellow sky watchers on the south side of our planet have been enjoying the comet as it has brightened, for most northern hemisphere observers it is still rather low. In the past couple weeks it has moved far enough north that it is now nicely positioned to observe from Hawaiʻi. I have been following the comet for a while, catching it in binoculars from the house. We showed it to students of Paʻauilo Elementary in club telescopes as they camped out at the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp earlier this week.

Unfortunately it is still low enough that my neighbor’s trees prevent me from photographing it from the driveway. Thus I took the opportunity to pack up the ‘scope and head for Hale Pohaku and the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station for a night of photography.

The Mauna Kea VIS is busier than ever, the numbers of tourists coming to this free show just continued to increase. Parking is now a major issue, with even the lower gravel lots full of visitor vehicles. Fortunately, with some discussion and name dropping, the rangers allowed me and my vehicle past the barricades into the main lot so I could set up just off the patio. I would be entertaining guests at the telescope and answering questions all evening, becoming part of the show.

Continue reading “Shooting a Comet”

Geminids and a Comet

Stayed up late tonight to check on a few things in the sky. Firstly the Geminid meteor shower, which is peaking nicely. At least 100ZHR and bright enough to be nicely visible, even against the light of a bright gibbous moon.

The second item I wanted to see was comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, now climbing higher in the sky as it swings northwards. It is currently somewhat low in Puppis, but getting higher each night as it moves nearly due north against the constellations. Currently it is an easy binocular object at around 7th magnitude. A quick sweep with my 9×50’s picked it up without effort halfway between Adhara and Canopus.

It is forecast to reach around 5th magnitude over the next month. Peak magnitude should occur near the new year while the comet is in Lepus. We placed and quite bright, I will be arranging to get a few photos of this comet through the new year!

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques Animation

With 24 exposures, each 4 minutes long, it is possible to animate the comet’s movement among the stars. Just process the photos individually and import into photoshop as an animation, then export as an animated GIF. Just click on the image to view…

C/2014 E2 Jacques Animation
24 x 4min exposures of comet C/2014 E2 jacques assembled as an animation

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques

An assembled version of the imagery I took of comet C/2014 E2 Jacques. 24 x 4min exposures, stacked in Images Plus and final processed in Photoshop. While traces of the tails were visible, I was unable to preserve the faint signal in this processed color frame.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques
Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques, 24 x 4min with a Canon 6D and a TV-76mm scope

The Tails of Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques

The tails are faint!

I have talked to a couple folks who have observed the comet in mid-sized telescopes, 14 and 24 inch, instruments. One thing they note is the absence of any visual tails on this otherwise bright comet. In processing the imagery from last night I can see the tails, but only in a very strong stretch of the data.

Below is an inverted version of mostly the green channel. Both the ion tail and dust tail are visible, but they are truly subtle. The ion tail is visible as a streak going to the right in the image, quite thin and straight, extending well over three degrees. The dust tail is visible as a wide are below the coma in this image.

Still working to properly the process the full image, the data looks very good so far.

C/2014 E2jacques Inverted
The faint tails of comet C/2014 E2 Jacques, stack of 24x240s exposures, Canon 6D and TV-76mm

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques

A bright comet is always a good reason to drag the telescope out of the garage. In this case it is comet C/2014 E2 Jacques, currently about magnitude 7 in Cepheus. The comet is rising over the house about 9pm and available for shooting from my usual driveway setup location.

Setup went pretty smoothly, I have not changed anything in the basic configuration for a while. Shooting the Canon 6D on the TV-76mm scope. I did have some issues getting the autoguider to calibrate. The low magnification and high latitude meant the the calibration moves are just too small. Realizing that this also meant that any potential guide errors would also be small, I just shut the autoguider off. No guiding errors are visible in the four minute exposures.

C/2014 E2 Jacques
Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques on the evening of 27Aug2014, single 240s exposure with a Canon 6D and a TV-76mm telescope

Yes, the shot looks pretty bad… The frame is a quick process of a single sub-frame, just a white balance and curve adjustment in Photoshop. As I write this there are 13 completed exposures with another 17 to go. I do not think I will complete the sequence, I do need to go to bed sometime soon, I have to head to Hilo early tomorrow morning for a conference at Gemini.

Given a couple dozen good exposures I should be able to produce a much better image than is seen here. So far all of the sub-frames look good indeed, nice signal to noise, a bit of nebulae showing near the comet, and maybe a trace of the wispy ion tail. It will be a few days before I have a chance to properly process the image.

Comet 209P LINEAR Meteor Shower Reminder

A reminder that there is the possibility of a strong meteor shower this evening. The Earth may pass through a cloud of debris left by comet 209P/LINEAR. Sky watchers should observe around 21:00 to 22:00HST on the evening of May 23rd.

Leonids in Orion
A pair of Leonid meteors streak through Orion
North America and the North Pacific is favored for visibility. If it occurs the peak will be short and sweet, lasting about an hour. Fortunately for us in the islands this is predicted for mid-evening hours, from 7-8UT on the 24th (21-22HST on the 23rd). Predictions for the shower range from minor to spectacular. The meteors will seem to radiate from a part of the sky occupied by the dim constellation Camelopardalis, thus some are dubbing this shower the Camelopardalids.

For Hawai’i the radiant will be low in the north, about 20 degrees above the horizon, near Polaris. This means that any meteors we see will be hitting the atmosphere at a low angle. Combined with the low speed of the meteors this could lead to very showy bolides streaking across much of the sky.

As with any meteor shower, any predictions are to be taken with a large dose of skepticism. It is important to point out that meteor prediction is not an exact science, rather a bit of an art form. In this case there are any number of unknowns involved, we could see nothing, we could see a true meteor storm. This event could be anything from “meh” to “oh wow!!!”. To their credit, the folks making these predictions have been impressively right on several recent showers.

I would strongly suggest that you at least take an effort to step outside after 9pm on Friday evening and see what the sky has to offer. All you need is a clear dark sky.