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.
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.
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.
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.