By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, WASH. – Nature is tossing a bright celestial ball of dust and ice over the Pacific Northwest this week. Comet Lovejoy is at its peak of brightness, giving observers an opportunity to see its glow in winter’s night sky, according to Washington State University astronomer Michael Allen.
Now is the time to capture its magic, he said.
“Come February it will begin to dim. Once it’s gone, it won’t pass by this way for another 8,000 years.”
Amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy from Queensland, Australia discovered the comet on Aug. 17 and four others like it in previous years. Officially called C/2014 Q2, it began brightening in December as it drew closer to the sun, which is binding the comet in orbit, explained Allen.
“Lovejoy has been getting brighter as it moves toward its January 30 perihelion, or the closest point to the sun,” he said.
Even though the comet is 50-million miles from earth, now through the end of this month is prime time to view it. A dull smudge to the naked eye, it’s best seen with binoculars or a telescope, though nothing fancy is necessary, said Allen. Pick a location away from urban lights, sometime after 9 p.m. and before 3 a.m.
“If it’s dark enough to see Orion’s Belt, then it should be dark enough to see Lovejoy,” he said.
While gazing toward the southern horizon, locate the glittering constellation of Pleiades, a tight cluster of stars resembling a very tiny big dipper, he advised. Comet Lovejoy will be slightly to its right, appearing like a lit-up fuzzy snowball among white-diamond stars. Sky gazers may also note a greenish tint– produced by molecules of diatomic carbon fluoresced by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, he said.
With the moon out of the way and breaks in cloud cover predicted over the Northwest during the next week, there’s an opportunity for many people to see their first—and perhaps only—comet. It will appear to move very slowly, not as a sweeping flash across the sky, said Allen.
“There are millions of comets that are so small and so far away that they haven’t been discovered,” he explained. “Although a few dozen comets will pass close to the sun this year, it is rare that one becomes bright enough for people to see with binoculars.”
Michael Allen, WSU astronomer, 509-335-1279, firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, email@example.com