Catch a comet this month!

Discovered by Australian amateur comet-hunter and astrophotographer, Terry Lovejoy, in August last year, comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is already making its way through the inner solar system. And now is the time to look out for it yourself!

Comet Lovejoy will be visible in binoculars all month from anywhere in the northern hemisphere (Europe, North America & Northern Asia) as soon as it’s dark. It should be possible to see it with the naked eye before the moon rises now too!

Southern aspect

To find the comet, face south and look for the familiar constellation of Orion early in the month and Taurus, Aries and then Triangulum later in January to get you in the vicinity. This comet is moving! This image will show you the rough area to look and a camera with a standard lens pointed in this area will easily capture it on a clear night if pointed in the vague direction of the comet. If it brightens significantly, you should be able to see it as a fuzzy star, slightly brighter than the surrounding stars.

Comet Lovejoy

If you're using binoculars or a telescope, you'll be looking for a more precise fix to magnify your view of the comet and that means you need to get in close or have prominent stars to guide you. For that, here’s our simple graphic to show you exactly where to look:

18 jan

The comet will look like a fuzzy star in binoculars or a small telescope. In larger scopes you may see the tail streaking slightly behind it. This comet has grown, lost and regrown a tail at least twice already as it makes its voyage towards the sun.

Finding a time when the moon isn't blazing away will boost your view. From 13th January onward, there will be no moon in the sky before midnight and no moon in the sky makes comets stand out all the more. But don't let that put you off looking for it when the moon is there as faint Comet Garrad showed us in 2011 that a moonlit night won't completely ruin the party when it comes to observing or photographing comets (it just provides less contrast between the comet and the dark sky).

Comet Garradd

Although perihelion (an orbiting object's closest point to the sun) is not until 30th January, Comet Lovejoy's closest proximity to the Earth was on 7th January (43 million miles might seem like a lot but in cosmic terms it's practically reach-out-and-touchable!) In terms of when it will be brightest to Earth observers, this means we have a trade off between the two dates and will appear at it's brightest to us on the nights of the 13th, 14th and 15th January. From now, we expect it to be at its brightest and only fading very gradually throughout January.

As of 10th January it has become a naked eye comet from dark skies, requiring neither binoculars nor a telescope. Of course, binoculars or a telescope will enhance that view significantly. 

After the 15th January, you'll struggle to notice it dimming all the way up to the beginning of February - this makes it great for being able to pick your observing/imaging night according to the weather. And once it reaches perihelion on the 30th January, it will swing around the sun and begin its slow journey back out to the outer edge of the solar system. Luckily for us, although dimming slowly, it should be visible in binoculars throughout February and to telescope users until early May as it climbs past the constellations of Aries and Triangulum, through Cassiopeia and into Cepheus.

If you are using binoculars to bag the comet this week, also use a tripod to stop them shaking and blurring your view – and to stop your arms getting tired too! If you don’t have a tripod, try using a wall or a broom turned upside down to steady them – it sounds silly, but it really will help you stabilise your view.

Binos

If you have a telescope, this will already have a tripod or mount and will let you get much greater magnification on the comet. Even a small telescope (70 or 80mm) will let you see it and a medium sized scope (100-150mm) should get you a view of its tail. Obviously, the larger the telescope you can use, the more light you’ll gather and the more you’ll be able to magnify the comet, yielding greater definition and detail on the comet, its coma (tenuous atmosphere caused by outgassing) and any tail the comet has. 

Peach

I'm afraid, whatever telescope you have, the comet won't look as good as this image by British astrophotographer extraordinaire, Damian Peach, but with a DSLR you'll be able to capture some very impressive images of your own - a camera will also reveal its green colour.

Any camera that has adjustable settings, placed on a tripod, will let you capture nice images of the comet high above the horizon. Just point a 18-35mm lens in the direction of the comet (see our chart above) and take a few shots at full aperture and ISO 3200 for 10 seconds. If you see a fuzzy star in the right place, zoom in on that region of sky as far as you can and repeat. If the stars are streaky, reduce the exposure to 5 seconds. If the image is too grainy, reduce the ISO to 1600. If you have a larger lens - say a 70-300mm - that should work even better. Try 5 second exposures at ISO 3200 and increase the length of the exposure until you start getting streaky stars. Then you can reduce the ISO level as much as possible to reduce noise (image graininess).

camera eos_rear

If you have a telescope and a DSLR, centre the comet in your eyepiece using a star chart or your goto handset (if you have a goto mount), then attach your camera to your scope using a T-ring adapter. Then take exposures for as long as you can before the stars become streaky - this may be as long as a couple of minutes if you have a motorised telescope mount. Attached to your scope your camera's aperture will automatically be that of your scope, and cannot be changed, but you'll want to set the ISO level as low as possible - 800 is a good start - you can always increase it if you want a brighter comet and/or tail and decrease it if you want better contrast between the comet and the blackness of the night sky. 

If you don’t have a telescope of your own - or you want to look through a larger one - here’s a list of astronomical societies, who will be only too happy to show you the comet through a range of scopes of all shapes and sizes. There are plenty around the country so there should be one easily within a few miles of where you live. Many are free. Most charge a couple of quid per visit.

Happy hunting!