Eyes on the sky

 

Sometime this month, pick a clear, not-too-cold evening and head outside to look at the sky. If luck is with you, a comet will go streaking past Earth as it orbits the sun.

The comet, called C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), is already visible to the naked eye in some areas and made its closest approach to Earth on January 7, passing within 44 million miles of the planet. But because it’ll continue nearing the sun for the next few weeks — and heating up, creating a tail of vaporized dust and ice — it’ll be brightest and most striking in the two weeks after January 7 will be visible to the naked eye during that period. astronomers say.

Comets that are visible without telescopes at all only come around about once a year. This particular comet is predicted to be brighter than most.

How to see the comet— Regardless of where you live, you can already see the comet each night starting a few hours after sunset. Begin watching around 9 p.m. or so, which is when it’ll be relatively high above the horizon. But over the next month, it’ll move higher and higher in the sky, so it’ll already be quite far from the horizon by sunset for most Northern hemisphere viewers.

Because Three Rivers has minimal light pollution, binoculars or a telescope might not be necessary at all to get a view of the comet, but even as it grows brighter, using these instruments as available will give the viewer the most dramatic sightings. But in mid-to-late January, the brightening comet — combined with less interference from moonlight — will continue to be visible.

Right now, the comet is directly below the constellation Orion, making it pretty easy to find. By mid-January, when the moon is dimmer, astronomers predict that Comet Lovejoy will brighten to 4th magnitude in the sky.

If seen through binoculars, it’ll look like a hazy blob, and might appear green — the result of its carbon molecules getting hit by ultraviolet sunlight.

If you have an especially good view, you may even see a faint tail streaking behind the comet, due to vaporization of dust and ice as it nears the sun and heats up.

About Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy)— Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer in Australia, who has previously discovered four other comets, first spotted this comet in August. It wasn’t originally predicted to be easily visible, but it’s become far brighter than projected.

Astronomers have calculated that it’s a “long-period comet,” which means that it has a highly elliptical orbit that takes it to the outer reaches of the solar system, then back toward the sun, over long periods of time.

In this case, the orbit is calculated to take about 11,500 years, though slight changes to the orbit (due to the gravity of the planets it’s passing by on this go-round) will shorten that to 8,000 years for the next orbit. In either case, if you don’t see the comet in January, there will not be another chance in your lifetime.

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