The Other Great Morning Comet

While Comet ISON is brightening rapidly, Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is far more impressive right now in the pre-dawn sky.

Reports indicate that the brightness of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) has surged recently, so I went out this morning to check it out for myself. And tipped off by Greg Crinklaw's Comet Chasing site, I also looked for the three other bright comets that are currently up in the morning sky.

Italian astrophotographer Rolando Ligustri captured Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) near Messier 44, the Beehive Cluster, on November 7th. Click above to see the original image.
Rolando Ligustri
Crinklaw wrote that Comet ISON is the least impressive of the lot. I'm not sure I would agree, but there's no doubt at all which is best. Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a real humdinger — almost as bright now as Comet ISON was forecast to be -- which is to say, about 10 times brighter than ISON actually is. This morning Lovejoy was in the same binocular field of view with M44, the Beehive Cluster — an incredible view. The comet is big, bright, and gorgeous, with a diffuse but fairly long tail.

Moreover, Comet Lovejoy C/2013 R1 (not to be confused with other famous comets discovered by Terry Lovejoy) is very well placed in the predawn sky, high in the southeast near the Leo/Cancer border. If you prefer staying up late to getting up early, Lovejoy is reasonably high in the east by 1 a.m. at mid-northern latitudes.

ISON is feeble by comparison, though it has indeed improved a lot in the last few weeks. I swept it up easily in my 7-inch Dob at 28X, and it was quite handsome at 120X, with a 3' head and a bright, starlike pseudonucleus. I didn't see any sign of a tail. I tried and failed to see it with my 10x30 binoculars; it might be possible in a darker sky.

Comet 2P/Encke is painfully low at the onset of astronomical twilight, but also quite handsome. Its head is considerably smaller but brighter than ISON's, standing out well against the brightening sky.

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) gave me the most trouble; it is both low in twilight and very diffuse — a bad combination! If you're going to skip any one of these four comets, this is the one to skip.

I drove to my astronomy club's observing field near the edge of Boston's suburbs for these observations. It's pretty dark as suburbs go; on the other hand, the comets happened to be in precisely the worst spot in the sky, right above the glow of Boston. So I think that ISON should be pretty easy to spot in a telescope now from a typical suburb, assuming you have a low eastern horizon. And Comet Lovejoy should be easy to spot almost anywhere.

Click here to download a detailed, full-page chart of both comet's paths for the next week, before the full Moon makes the comets difficult to see. The ticks on the charts are for 0:00 Universal Time, roughly a half day before morning twilight in the Americas.

10 thoughts on “The Other Great Morning Comet

  1. Paul Vondra

    I’m just back in from looking for Comet Lovejoy from 1:50 to 2:20 AM (Nov.9)with my Orion 4.5-in. dobs and I could NOT find it. I had the exact location according to the chart that this article links to, and while I assumed the Nov.9 tick was for 0h UT I searched for a couple of degrees on either side. my site is moderately light polluted – the Beehive was visible naked eye but only with averted vision. I checked my scope by spotting NGC 2903 nearby– it wasn’t EASY, but it was visible, and it should have been at least a couple of magnitudes fainter than the comet. Did Lovejoy pull a 2000 LINEAR and just fizzle ? Was the chart way off? Was I looking in the wrong spot despite my care of checking field stars with the chart? Did I just goof and should I j go out and try again? Can anyone tell me anything?

    PS- I spotted Comet Encke from the same site with the same scope the morning of Oct. 26 using a slightly less detailed chart with no trouble. I estimated it at about 7th mag., fairly large and diffuse, not much visible condensation.

  2. Paul Vondra

    Well, the fault was in myself and not in my stars, to paraphrase that English guy. Tonight I went out with my 4.5" and WITHOUT a chart, just my memory of the star field from last night and winged it… and found it in less than a minute, right off a wide optical mag. 5/6 pair that I had used as a jumping off point last night. Sky conditions are about the same, time is the same– I have NO idea what went wrong last night, but I’m glad i tried again tonight and I’m sorry I wasted the time of anyone who might have read my earlier post. It was LARGE, I didn’t see any tail but it had a nice condensation to it and I put it at about mag. 6.5. Definitely worth the trouble. I’m going to make my second try at a first look at ISON in a little while, if the clouds hold off.

  3. Fred

    What is a very good inexpencive telescope to buy? I live in Northern Alberta, Canada. So it would have to beable to handle our cold nights. Which I believe is when the sky seems to be the clearest. I would like to beable to attach a lap top to it to review remotly and beable to take pictures through it.

  4. Bill Simpson

    @ Fred. You are going to have to spend some money to get an electrically driven telescope that can be remotely controlled with a computer. Get one with a GPS unit built into it, so you won’t have to enter a lot of data into it yourself outside in the cold. Give the Celestron, Meade, or Orion people a call. If I were you, I wouldn’t go with anything smaller than an 8 inch diameter telescope. Light pollution from cities is the biggest problem with telescope use for most people, not clouds, unless it is cloudy a LOT up there. For viewing faint galaxies with your eyes, moonlight interferes a lot too. Do some research before spending a couple of thousand dollars. There is no law against astronomy during the summer either. For looking through a telescope with your eye, the bigger it is the better, because bigger mirrors gather more light than smaller mirrors, so fainter objects become visible as the scope gets fatter. You can buy a Scopebuggy to roll a heavy telescope around without having to lift a lot of weight, if you can keep it in a building all assembled. Check out the weight of the components of whatever you buy. The optical tube assembly of a 12 inch telescope is HEAVY to put on the tripod without a helper.

  5. Jeremiah Gill

    You do not need a telescope to see comet Lovejoy, I just came in from looking at it with 7×50 binoculars. I also saw the moons of Jupiter. I can just about see the comet with naked eye vision. I’m in Maine, it gets cold here too, currently 15° F.
    A good simple telescope works well for viewing. Computer driven is a whole other expense, where you are paying for electronics, not optics. Finding your own way around the sky is enjoyable, it’s not just pictures, it’s space, and knowing the sky orients you – celestial navigation.
    Smaller telescope mirrors adjust to rapidly falling temperatures faster. My biggest telescope has a heavy mirror, our clearest nights here have falling temperatures all night. The heavy mirror is hard to cool, when warm it heats the air on its surface and blurs the image, like a puddle mirage on hot pavement. I have to use fans to help cool the mirror, even though I keep it in the very cold barn. I often put a huge fan on the back of the mirror, not that pleasant at below zero F. temps. My 6 inch reflector cools quickly, I keep it in the house. So bigger is better, but harder to use up north. Mine works fantastic in Florida.

  6. Rich

    Got out at start of twilight this morning- a bit later than I wanted to. Went for ISON first. With rather light polluted conditions (mag. 4.5 at zenith) a slight morning fog, and fairly low altitude of the comet, I could not find it. The sturggle for ISON put me behind schedule but was still able to find Lovejoy in maybe 30 seconds. Very bright, somehwat featureless in early twilight. Just like an unresolved globular cluster. Probably close to 5th magnitude, so it should be visible to the eye from better locations. Have to head out earlier and go out away from lights if I get another chance.

  7. Dave Mitsky

    Much to my surprise, the sky cleared and I was able to see Comet Lovejoy through a 10×50 Celestron Ultima binocular from my red zone backyard early this morning.

    C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) was located a bit northeast of M44 and appeared as a more-or-less circular patch of nebulosity.
    This comet is performing better than expected and is currently putting Comet ISON to shame. It has been seen naked-eye from dark sites.

    I also observed M35, M36, M37, M41, M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, Collinder 70, and the Hyades before the clouds returned.

    The sky was far more transparent this morning. The winds were calm and the temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).

    This time I used 10×50 Celestron Ultima and 15×70 Burgess
    Optical binoculars to observe C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), Jupiter, and a number of deep-sky objects. The 15x70s were a bit difficult to hold with one hand but I managed.

    Comet Lovejoy had progressed on its northeastward course and was near the fourth-magnitude star Kappa Leonis. It was easily visible through the 15x70s.

    DSOs and asterisms observed included M35, M36, M37, M38, M41, M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, M45, M46, M47, M67, NGC 2244, NGC 2264, Collinder 65, Collinder 69, Collinder 70, the Hyades, and the “Leaping Minnow” in Auriga. M46 was the most difficult object to see from my light-polluted backyard.

  8. Dave Mitsky

    I was able to observe Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) again this morning from my red zone backyard. It was at an earlier hour than my two previous sightings so the comet was a bit lower in altitude. In addition, the Moon had not yet set and the transparency was not as good as on Monday morning. It was also colder.
    I used only the Celestron Ultima 10x50s this time. The comet was located to the northeast of the fourth-magnitude star Kappa Leonis and north of the third-magnitude star Epsilon Leonis. It was somewhat faint but was definitely present with averted vision.
    I also viewed M35, M36, M37, M38, M41, M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, M45, NGC 2244, NGC 2264, Collinder 65, Collinder 69, Collinder 70, the Hyades, Mellotte 20, and the Leaping Minnow. The Hyades and Mellotte 20 (the Alpha Persei Association) were high overhead at the time and were striking binocular targets.

  9. Dave Mitsky

    I saw Comet Lovejoy again this morning using 10×50 and 15×70 binoculars under partially cloudy, mediocre skies. The comet was now north of the fourth-magnitude star Mu Leonis and was a bit difficult to see.
    Also observed were the following deep-sky objects and asterisms: M35, M36, M37, M38, M41, M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, M45, M47, M48, M50, M67, NGC 2244, NGC 2264, Collinder 65, Collinder 69, Collinder 70, and the Hyades, and the Leaping Minnow in Auriga.
    I was outside this morning before 5:00 a.m. EST and was able to see Comet Lovejoy easily enough through my 15x70s from my backyard, despite a brightening sky. I also looked at M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, M45, and the Hyades