Binocular Comet Lovejoy Heading Our Way

The latest Comet Lovejoy is 5th magnitude in late December and should reach 4th magnitude in January, when it will be nicely placed high in the dark for your binoculars or telescope. It's visible to the unaided eye under good sky conditions.

Update Dec. 30: As Comet Lovejoy enters its best time of viewing, see our newest post for updated information on the comet's progress.
Update Dec. 28: The comet has reached magnitude 5.0! It's in Lepus, easily visible now from northern latitudes in late evening when Orion stands high. Tonight (Sunday) it passes by the globular cluster M79, which is smaller and much fainter at magnitude 8.4. From Sky & Telescope's hometown at latitude 42° north, the comet is a big puffball in 10×50 binoculars even through suburban light pollution. It appears moderately concentrated toward the center, with a hint of being asymmetric but no visible tail. But the tail is there alright, as numerous amateur photos are showing.
Update Dec. 15: Comet Lovejoy is brightening faster than expected. Last night it was visual magnitude 6.1, estimated by veteran comet observer Alan Hale using 10×50 binoculars with the comet very low in his sky. From Australia, where the comet currently passes overhead, David Seargent says that on December 13th he "just managed to glimpse 2014 Q2 naked eye in a very clear sky. I estimated it at mag. 6.1 and at 6.2 with 2×25 opera glasses." Then on the 14th: "Much easier to see naked eye than 24 hours earlier, and estimated as bright as 5.5!" That same night Michael Mattiazzo in Australia estimated it at 6.0, and Paul Camilleri reported 5.7. At this rate Comet Lovejoy would crest at about 4.1 in mid-January.
Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, on Nov. 27, 2014

The new Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, as imaged on November 27th by Gerald Rhemann in Austria using a remotely operated 12-inch f/3.6 astrograph in Namibia. Click image for larger view.

A new Comet Lovejoy, designated C/2014 Q2, is heading our way out of deep space and out of the deep southern sky. It may brighten to 5th magnitude from late December through much of January as it climbs into excellent viewing position for the Northern Hemisphere, high in the dark winter night.

This is Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy's fifth comet discovery. He turned it up at 15th magnitude in Puppis last August, in search images that he took with a wide-field 8-inch scope. It hasn't moved very much since then — it's still in Puppis as of December 11th — but it's hundreds of times brighter now at visual magnitude 6.8, reports David Seargent in Australia. On December 9th "I saw it easily using a pair of 6x35 binoculars," Seargent writes. Using a 4-inch binocular telescope at 25×, he says it was a good 8 arcminutes wide with a strong central condensation and no visible tail.

And it's picking up speed across the sky for a long northward dash.

A Comet of the High Dark

"Comet Q2," as some are calling it, will skim through Columba south of Orion and Lepus from the nights of December 16th through the 26th, brightening all the while, as shown on the finder charts for December and January below and on the print-friendly versions here: December, January. The dates on the charts are in Universal Time, and the ticks are for 0:00 UT.

The comet spends the last few days of December in Lepus at perhaps 6th magnitude, though by then the light of the waxing Moon (at first quarter on the 28th) will start to be an annoyance. On New Year's Eve, a little after January 1st Universal Time, look for the comet just off Lepus's forehead as shown on the charts.

The Moon brightens to become full on January 4th. Most of us won't get a dark moonless view again until early in the evening of January 7th, with the comet now crossing northernmost Eridanus. That's the same day it passes closest by Earth: at a distance of 0.47 a.u (44 million miles; 70 million km). That's also about when it should start glowing brightest for its best two weeks, as it crosses Taurus and Aries high in early evening.

By then the comet is starting to recede into the distance, but its intrinsic brightness should still be increasing a bit; it doesn't reach perihelion until January 30th, at a rather distant 1.29 a.u. from the Sun. By that date the comet should be starting to fade slightly from Earth's point of view. In February it will continue north between Andromeda and Perseus as it fades further, on its way to passing very close to Polaris late next May when it should again be very faint.

Originally Comet Q2 wasn't expected to become this bright. We're basing these predictions on an analysis by J. P. Navarro Pina in late November using the comet's visual behavior for the previous several weeks. Whether it will continue to brighten on schedule is anybody's guess, but the odds are good; comets that don't come near the Sun are more predictable in their brightnesses than those that do.

Q2 is a very long-period comet, but this is not its first time coming through the inner solar system. On the way in, its path showed an orbital period of roughly 11,500 years. Slight perturbations by the planets during this apparition will alter the orbit a bit, so that it will next return in about 8,000 years.

Oh, and that lovely green color? Comet heads are usually like that. The green glow comes from molecules of diatomic carbon (C2) fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight in the near-vacuum of space. (In addition cyanogen, CN, can add some violet to the green, but our eyes are fairly insensitive to violet.) Here's a spectrum of a comet's head with the emission lines labeled.

By contrast, a comet's ion tail (gas tail) — the narrow, often detail-filled part of the tail that points directly away from the Sun — is tinted blue. The ion tail's color comes from fluorescing carbon monoxide ions (CO+).

Dust in a comet's head and tail simply reflects sunlight, so it appears Sun-colored: pale yellowish white. The greatest comets tend to get that way by being very dusty, so the most memorable naked-eye comets are usually remembered as white. Examples were the spectacular Comet Hale-Bopp of 1997 and the grand sungrazing Comet Lovejoy of 2011, C/2011 W3. But the current Comet Lovejoy is producing very little dust.

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during December 2014. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time).

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during December 2014. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time). Click here for print-friendly black-on-white PDF.

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during January 2015. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time).

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during January 2015. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time). Click here for larger, print-friendly black-on-white PDF.

For more to see with your binoculars, check out Gary Seronik's Binocular Highlights.

25 thoughts on “Binocular Comet Lovejoy Heading Our Way

  1. Nzubenel

    Q2 will pass VERY close to Charles Messier’s 79th disappointment at ~ 06:00 UT on December 29th – an incredible observing and photo opp. M 79 is a bright globular cluster in Lepus.


    1. rocksnstarsrocksnstars

      Thanks for the tip! Due to the comet being low in Dec (I live in Maine!) and the moon in the way at the end of the month, I had not planned on trying to observe Q2 until it was high in the sky and the moon out of the way in Jan. But with it being only 0.3 deg S of M79 (yes, VERY close!) at 10:30 PM EST on the 28th and conveniently on the meridian at an altitude of 21 degrees, I will surely want to try to see that, even tho the first quarter moon will be washing out the view, and the odds are not good of it being clear on any particular night.

  2. KevinKevin

    As a kid (born in 1961) I couldn’t wait for 1986 to arrive but it seemed SO far in the future. When Comet Halley made its appearance, I was disappointed because at its best it was maybe mag. 2. But then in the 1990’s, Comet Hyukatake showed up and it more than made up for Halley’s lackluster performance!

    1. Donald-Lax

      that 1996 comet was the 1st one I ever saw with my naked eye, Halley’s was a big disappointment for me, and as I lived in Michigan at the time,it was so cold those nites and not worth it. I also remember the comet that was after the one in 1996, the one that hit Jupiter I think, my wife and I could see it in the western sky after sunset but before it even got dark out WOW that as a good one!! We were in west Kentucky then.

  3. RIchard-Fefferman

    Q2 has just been glimpsed, just barely to the naked eye at mag. 6 by experienced Australian observers in pristine conditions. So it is running a bit ahead of these predictions and might get as bright as 4th mag. at peak for us northerners. This could make it pretty impressive in binoculars and small telescopes from dark locations at its peak, if it ever develops a bright tail. The pass about 10 degrees west of the Pleiades around Jan. 19 could be a nice photo opportunity, as the tail would probably be pointing towards the cluster.

  4. NS

    Here in Hawaii (near Honolulu) the area of the comet is visible. Tried to spot it last night around 11 PM local time. No luck — bright sky, clouds blowing through, probably inadequate equipment (8X42 binoculars). Next clear night I’ll try again with my 6″ rich field scope.

  5. Florian-Boyd

    Even with the moonlight the comet was easily visible at 2:30a this morning through 10×40 binoculars from Palm Springs, Calif.

  6. halley71

    Thanks Alan by use my personal predictions of brightness for this comet , my last analysis based in 511 observations ccd+visual of comet from MPC database , Comet Obs , LIADA , and observadorescometas , update the new light curve of comet C/2014 Q2 LOVEJOY , continue fast increase of visual magnitude and probable state of outburts , my personal analysis indicate several possible outburts for this comet and lack confirmation , the activity index continue high n=10.3 ( 15/12/14 ) and absolute magnitude m0=+2.5 in r = 1,4 au . if you continue this rapid increase in brightness could have magnitude +4.1 in January -2015 , more info

  7. rocksnstarsrocksnstars

    Back to Q2 being less than 1/2 degree from M79 all evening across the U.S. on the 28th, the light from the comet will be approx 4 and 1/2 minutes old and from the globular approx 40 thousand years old, so if you do get the chance to observe them together, try to “picture” the depth of field difference.

  8. NS

    Hmmm, Florian-Boyd’s success from California makes me think I should have been able to see it. Besides the obvious question if I was looking at the right area, I wonder if maybe the drier air of Palm Springs is more transparent, or if maybe 10X40 binos have a little better contrast than 8X42s…keep trying…

  9. Donald-Lax

    Can anyone just give a direction to look for it , North , South. East . West for Northwest Tennessee for late Dec and thru Jan?? I don’t understand why these sites give such hard directions to look for something. I mean just say look in the northwest sky around 3-5 am or something like that.

    1. RIchard-Fefferman

      The comet won’t be bright enough for simple directions like that to work. At 4th or 5th magnitude, it will look like a bright fuzzy spot in binoculars from a dark sky location, possibly with a dim tail pointing in the direction away from the sun. It might be possible to see it to the unaided eye from very dark locations, but only as a dim fuzzy spot. This comet isn’t going to get close enough to us or the Sun to become very bright. Best way to find it is to use Orion as a guide, and turn the map so that Orion’s orientation matches that on the chart. Use a dim flashlight and locate the area of the comet in binoculars, and scan slowly and carefully for a fuzzy spot. It will probably be hard to find at all for newbies looking from close to the city lights. Best time to look right now is in the middle of the night, when Orion is highest in the south, but the comet is VERY low unless you are in the far south like Texas or Florida. Earlier in the evening in January. Lepus is a pretty distinct looking constellation, so the period about 5-7 days from now is good, before the moon gets too bright. Otherwise after the Moon gets out of the way around January 7, as the text says.
      It is so hard to get a truly great comet. This one is intrinsically bright enough, but not in the right orbit, not getting close enough to the Earth and Sun. Or they can be in the right orbit but too small. Or they can get too close to the Sun and get wiped out like ISON last year. Or they can get quite bright but not in a good position for observation, like PanSTARRS last year. Particularly if the comet has never approached the sun before, it is apt to fall way below expectations. The last two “great” comets, McNaught and the earlier Lovejoy, were by far the best seen from the southern hemisphere. Comet watching can be fun but often very frustrating.

  10. Mark-Grosz

    Pretty sure I saw the comet last night from South-central PA, 10:30pm ET. Just above rooftops and trees for me. It was just a bit southeast of HR2329, in a line with Wezen and Adhara (Canis Major). The comet was a faint fuzzy in my 8″ Dob with a 25mm. Conditions here were not good close to the horizon, with haze, clouds and light.

  11. Douglas-Jackson

    I saw comet Q2 last night from Foxton New Zealand at about 11pm. The sky was very dark but the comet was not easy to find with my 7×50 binocs, partly because it was just a circular smudge, estimated at visual magnitude 6.o, but also because it was in the absolute zenith and I nearly broke my neck looking at it (Use a deckchair or some support for the binoculars…). I finally found a wall I could lean against and look straight up. I could just (just!) see it with the naked eye, and only when I knew exactly where to look. The size of the vague circular smudge is the most distinctive thing about it. I remember when Halley (’86) got close to the globular omega Centauri and the two were like twins; history may repeat in a week for Q2 and M79! although let’s hope Q2 is a lot brighter by then. I found the comet (c/2014 Q2 Lovejoy) by first locating Sirius and Canopus and sweeping the skies between them with my binoculars. With the new adapters to hold smartphones and take excellent images, there should be a rash of amateur efforts to show this Christmas Comet. Maybe they will show the mean green colour and the foxy little tale. What I saw was too dim to show either. Merry Christmas and Clear Skies.

  12. Douglas-Jackson

    I did appreciate the S&T article on the net on comet Lovejoy 2014. The maps for December and January were excellent – neither too detailed or too simple – giving me a clear indication of where to look. Without that I doubt I would have seen this one – I’m sure Terry will give us a brighter one next Christmas…
    The descriptions for this comet have been restrained, which is also a blessing. Every reporting astronomer, when making predictions on a comet, should have a student standing beside him repeating “Remember Kohoutek.” in a patient but clear voice. And Kohoutek wasn’t even that dim! It was just a thousand times dimmer than the predictions.

  13. rocksnstarsrocksnstars

    I saw the comet from Norway Maine in an 8 inch scope on the 19th at 10:15 PM EST when it was only 5 deg above the horizon – very easy to see at 50X. But back to the close encounter (~0.2 deg) with M79 on the 28th, that is also a Lunar X event for all of the U.S. starting around 7 PM EST. Rocksnstars’ corollary (to Murphy’s Law): The probability of cloud cover at night is a) inversely proportional to the amount of moonlight in the sky, and b) directly proportional to the observer’s level of interest in any celestial event, with the latter taking precedence when applicable.

  14. Douglas-Jackson

    I Observed C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy with 7×50 binoculars at 1.30 am on the night of 23rd December from Foxton New Zealand. There were no clouds, but I waited for the heat of the day to wear out before observing. It was still 20 Celsius and 70% humidity at 1.30 am. The transparency was very good and the seeing was excellent, with even Sirius and Canopus twinkling only gently. The comet in the NE zenith was visible without binoculars, looking like the proverbial “hairy star”, but I could see no colour or tail, just the vague circular smudge of the coma, about 10′ (binocular view). In the binocs it looked brighter than last night, perhaps 5-6 in visual magnitude. The stars behind it wereperhaps dimmer than last night, making it easier to spot, but I am resigning myself to Q2 never getting brighter than the 4th magnitude. The curve by Alexandre Amorim (that I am comparing my estimates with) peaks at 4; my measures are a little above it but not by much.

  15. iceaxeiceaxe

    Just spotted Lovejoy from the Big Horn mountains of northern Wyoming.
    Took a 20 second exposure with an 18 mm lens Nikon D3300 asa 24000.
    Very bright and distinctly blue.
    Clouds moved in before i could set up my 6″ Newtonian rich field.
    Might be a few days before the snow storms pass and a few more before the moon is out of the way.
    Lucky i caught a picture.

  16. NS

    Finally spotted the comet a few nights ago and just looked at it again from here in Hawaii near Honolulu, using 8X42 binoculars. It appears to have brightened to the point where it can be seen fairly quickly. Unfortunately the sky in my area is also fairly bright, there are a lot of ground lights (especially during the Christmas season!), and sometimes a faint haze even when the air looks clear.

  17. Ed in ArlingtonEd in Arlington

    Caught Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 and M79 last night from Dinosaur Valley State Park 70 mi. SW of here, both of them in the same field of view of a 10″ Dobsonian with a 2X Barlowed 26mm eyepiece (i.e. 13mm) , the distance between them being about 1/6 – 1/8 the distance between Alnitak and Alnilam (i.e. the two leftmost/eastmost stars in Orion’s belt). A fine, cool sight (and site too).

    Not having read these messages before my viewing, I thought I might have had a find: Comet Lovejoy Q2 had split in two and I could be the first to report it! Alas I now find it was only Lovejoy passing M79; still I hadn’t spotted that one before, so I’m happy.

    I thought Lovejoy was noticeably brighter that it was when I also saw it last Wednesday night Dec. 24, though I can’t be sure since I viewed it from two different sites.

  18. Neil-Easden

    Observed Comet Lovejoy past two consecutive nights Dec 31st AM & Jan 1st AM, easily seen in my 6″ SCT even though I’m under heavy light pollution from my urban apartment balcony in NC! Viewing interrupted by clouds on both evenings ….of course. Real shock of the night was when I turned the scope over to Jupiter to find 3 of the moons “missing”. Astounding triple moon event!

  19. Packratjohn

    Finding it easily with binoculars at 10 pm Pacific, even in the bright moon. I’m near Fernley NV, about 30 miles east of Reno. Good viewing tonight. Will drag out the modest 115mm once the moon lags a bit. Sure miss the 8″, but sold it last year in a moment of weakness.

  20. Douglas-Jackson

    My part of the world has been all cloud and haze, so I was hoping the comet had had time to get bright in my absence. And it has, but not as much as I’d hoped. Observing from Foxton New Zealand with my 10″ f4.5 dobsonian it was a lovely sight, although I still had trouble seeing the tail clearly. I can see , I think, where it starts in streaks in the (now more centrally condensed) coma (about 25′) but beyond the coma it seems to vanish. I would say the magnitude was still over 4.1 (comparing C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy to 47 Tucanae which is 4.1). 47 is still smaller but brighter by a whisker. I put the magnitude at 4.3 – 4.5. Still, it may yet develop a little for the cameras, and I can now see it with the naked eye and then focus in with the binoculars. I enjoyed the northern sky with Canis Major, Orion and Taurus blazing from a cloudless sky with very good seeing and transparency, only spoilt by the bright but distant Moon. We in the south only have our dear little friend till around the 22nd January, so I shall be watching while I can.
    Clear skies.

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