Like the mythological Icarus, Comet ISON swung too close to the sun over our Thanksgiving holiday and has become cosmic rubble. Fortunately, a binocular object – albeit the dim Comet Lovejoy – rambles through our northern morning skies this week.
At best, it’s a fifth magnitude object, which means you cannot spy Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) without binoculars or a small telescope. You may be able to find it around 5 – 5:30 a.m. – if you have a good view of north-northeast, says Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory. For reference, Comet Lovejoy loiters between the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the Bootes constellations, but it’s moving quickly. By next week, it will be lower on the horizon, dimmer and very hard to find as it moves toward Hercules.
Mike Lewis, a member of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC), caught Comet Lovejoy on camera Dec. 1 at about 5 a.m., near Aldie, Va. “Comet Lovejoy is not visible naked eye, but viewable with binoculars as a ‘fuzzy star’,” says Lewis, who explains the coma portion does not have a green tint, like that found with Comet ISON. “A small telescope will reveal a very short wispy tail.”
Another NOVAC member, James Granahan found it last Friday with 20×80 binoculars from Bealeton, Va., spying the comet about 30 degrees above the horizon, right before the sun washed away the dark starry sky.
Chester says right now is as bright as Comet Lovejoy gets, as it reaches perihelion Dec. 22 – the comet’s closest approach to the sun.
As for Comet ISON, images taken from the European Space Agency and NASA’s SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft have shown that the comet has disintegrated on its voyage around the sun Nov. 28.
Comets are primordial dirty snowballs. When it got too close to the sun at perihelion, ISON broke apart.
Scientists will continue to study Comet ISON: In mid December, the Hubble Space Telescope will trace the comet’s trajectory to see if there is any sign of a coma (or nucleus). Due to its delicate and sensitive instrumentation, the Hubble Telescope can only look for the comet when the sun is safely out of view.