Still bright and easier than ever to find, Comet Lovejoy continues to delight skywatchers. Watch as it cuts through Cassiopeia this week.
Comet Lovejoy, now a long-time visitor to our night sky, lies poised at the limit of naked eye visibility. Hovering around magnitude 5.8, the comet looks like a faint star from a dark sky, yet remains a beautiful object in binoculars and telescopes.
What's more, the comet will be incredibly easy to find in the coming week as it slips by the bright star Ruchbah in the familiar W shape of Cassiopeia. With the Moon now rising after midnight, Comet Lovejoy is up for hours in a dark sky, just waiting for you to drop by.
Even if you've observed Lovejoy before, take a look again. It's still bright, super easy to find, and may be the brightest comet northern hemisphere observers will see all year until C/2013 US 10 Catalina arrives in all its projected glory — in November!
Lovejoy stands about 40° above the northwest horizon from the central U.S. at nightfall in mid-March. From a rural location I've spotted the comet with the naked eye as a faint stellar spot on the past few nights. 10x50 binoculars really begin to show its character. Although Lovejoy's once Moon-sized coma has shrunk to just under 10′, it remains, bright, dense, and obvious in binoculars. Only the tail is faint; with averted vision I could trace 1° of fine silk to the northeast.
But I wasn't prepared for the view through my 15-inch (37-cm) reflector. Absolutely stunning. Some of that impression came from Lovejoy itself, but seeing the pale blue coma and translucent tail shot with hundreds of stars left me wordless. All I could do was stare in amazement.
For the next few weeks, as the comet traverses the starry riches of the Milky Way, I suspect a few more jaws will drop. Sometime it's not just the object itself, but how it relates to the environment around it that touches our sensibilities.
If Milky Way sprinkles aren't enough, Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be in excellent deep sky company. While you're pointed in the comet's direction, trip over to the sparkling "ET Cluster" (NGC 457) named for Spielberg's beloved extraterrestrial. A short hop above or east of Ruchbah, you'll alight on the triangle-shaped and colorful M103. Both clusters are visible in binoculars under a dark sky.
Finding Lovejoy's a breeze. Face northwest at nightfall and focus your binoculars on Delta Cas. Up through the first night of spring, the comet will lie near the star either to one side or the other. You can use the map included here or the Sky & Telescope version. On the evening of March 15th, you'll have a hard time separating star from comet when Lovejoy passes just 9′ (less than one-third of the Moon's diameter) south of Delta Cas for the Americas. A visual stunner in a telescope.
Comet Lovejoy will continue to fade in the coming weeks, but it certainly seems to be taking its time. Moonless skies through about March 22nd should provide the temptation you need to step outside for a look.
A couple final notes. The headless comet C/2015 D1 SOHO described in this blog last week continues to glow very faintly in the evening sky. After two attempts I finally succeeded in seeing it last night as weak haze only a little brighter than the sky background in a 15-inch telescope at 64x. A couple other observers spotted it visually and several have photographed it, including one of our readers, Dean Ketelsen.
The next week and a half will also be ideal for viewing the zodiacal light in the western sky. Look for a tall, glowing wedge of light — broader near the horizon and narrower at top — starting about 90 minutes after sundown.
Pick up a copy of the wicked handy Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas!