Read about a comet that didn’t fizzle.
Australian amateur astronomer and comet hunter Terry Lovejoy found his latest comet just before dawn on August 17, 2014, on CCD camera images taken with his 8-inch telescope. It’s the fifth comet he has discovered since 2007. Officially known as C/2014 Q2, Comet Lovejoy was magnitude 15 at discovery, exceptionally faint to have been picked up with such a modest telescope. Over the past few months Comet Lovejoy has moved across the winter sky below Orion and up past the Pleiades star cluster. At magnitude 4, the comet’s blue-green head was an easy binocular object in January. Its slender tail, so prominent in Alan Dyer’s photo below, was a faint wisp visually in binoculars but impressive in time exposures. On January 30, it was at perihelion (its closest point to the Sun). It was closest to Earth on January 7. Check here to see where the comet is tonight.
Comet Lovejoy is a very long-period comet. The comet’s path on the way in to the inner solar system at this return indicated an orbital period of roughly 11,500 years. But gravitational perturbations from Jupiter and, to a lesser extent, the other planets in the solar system have altered the comet’s orbit a bit. Its next return is projected for about 8,000 years from now.
An information technology specialist by day, Terry Lovejoy has been searching the night skies since 2004. “It takes time and patience,” he says, “but then finally something appears, and it is just amazing.” His astronomical camera takes 1,000 images overnight that are then examined by computer to select slow-moving objects — comets and asteroids. At first, he thought his latest find was an asteroid.
“I thought it was a known asteroid to start with. It didn’t have a tail that I could see, so it didn’t look like a comet.” The following night, he took photographs at a higher resolution. “I could see the tiny bit of tail and the coma, or head, which was small, but you could definitely see it. I was pretty sure I had something new.” It took just three days for the global authority, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to confirm that the object was, indeed, a new comet.
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