ELi ON EARTH: Lovejoy Comet Cometh

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Monday, January 12, 2015, 12:55 am
Aron Sousa

Image: Another Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) as photographed by Dan Burbank from the International Space Station in 2011; courtesy of NASA.

Last week ELi on Earth (EoE) focused its binoculars on the moons of Jupiter, and this week we will point our binoculars to comet Lovejoy.. The comet is bright enough to be seen with binoculars in East Lansing, or even with the naked eye if you are in a darker area.

This comet is not easy to find, but it is also not so hard to recognize. With binoculars, it will look like a fuzzy globe rather than a pinpoint star. If you are lucky, you might see a green tinge to the fuzzy globe compared to the whiter light of the stars. The greenish color comes from the fluorescence of diatomic carbon (two atoms of carbon bonded together) stimulated by ultraviolet light from the sun.

You will probably need a telescope to see the comet’s ion tail (blue from the fluorescence of carbon monoxide ions) or its dust tail (white from light shining off the dust particles), but the fuzzy head of the comet should be visible with binoculars. The dust tail curves slightly as it follows the orbit of the comet, while the ion trail is straighter and is directly away from the sun as ions are “blown” off the comet by light and particles from the sun.

It’s best to look for the comet in the early evening before the moon comes up. The comet will be about 20 degrees up and west from Orion’s belt—those three bright stars close together in a line in East Lansing's southern sky. Twenty degrees is about the width of two fists at arm’s length, so if you stick your arm up with a fist pointed at Orion's belt, and rotate your fist up twice, you'll be looking in the right place.

Comet Lovejoy was one of several comets found by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. He found the comet in August, 2014, using his home telescope in Australia. If you see the comet in East Lansing's sky, report the details to ELi!


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