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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Don't Miss Comet Lovejoy in Israeli Skies this January!

Comets are fickle creatures. They seem to know when we are hyping them and deliberately put on a disappointing show. Comet ISON of November 2013 was one such beast. Sometimes hyped as a "Comet of the Century" it flew too close to the sun and disintegrated into a cometary dust heap, leaving sky watchers around the world disappointed. On the other hand, more modest and unheralded comets can surprise with a bright display. Comet Lovejoy, now visible in Israeli skies, is an example of one such modest, surprising comet that is putting on a good show. (It can actually be seen well from most places on earth but since this is "Astronomy Israel" I will focus my remarks for Israeli sky watchers.)

Comet Lovejoy is now a naked eye object in the southern night sky, but at around magnitude 6 just barely. Magnitude 6 is the dimmest visible with the naked eye, and not even Mitzpe Ramon has magnitude 6 skies. However, with the aid of a modest pair of binoculars it should be easy to see. It should continue to brighten throughout the month of January, although it is difficult to say exactly how bright it will become.

The word "comet" means "hair" in Latin, because comets look like "hairy stars" or fuzzy stars. Only really bright comets have long, easily visible tails. Astronomers call comets "dirty snowballs", primitive aggregations of ices, dust and rocks left over from the earliest days of the creation of the solar system. Most are 4 1/2 plus billion years old. As they orbit the sun and approach closer to it they begin to melt, emitting a gas and dust tail that we see as the "hair" of the comet.

Comet Lovejoy as seen at the end of November 2014. This is a time lapse photo through a large telescope. You will not see this in your binoculars or even a backyard telescope. But this is what the beast looked like at the end on November.
Comet Lovejoy will be in the south/southeast sky after sunset and into the evening near the easily found constellations of Orion and Taurus the Bull. This is a close approximation of what it might look like in your binoculars.

Comet Lovejoy as it is likely to look through your binoculars on a dark, moonless night.
 One of my favorite photos of Comet Lovejoy is this one taken from Shanghai.

Comet Lovejoy as seen over Shanghai skies in early January. This is a three-photo mosaic.
The moon is full in early January, and Israeli skies are full of clouds and predicted sand storms through the week of January 4-10. When the full moon is out of the sky and skies clear we should have our best opportunities to spot the comet. Below is a sky chart with the position of the comet for each day in January.

Position of Comet Lovejoy each night through the month of January
The constellations Orion and Taurus are bright and easily seen, rising in the east/south east and culminating in the south around midnight. The 5-sided constellation Auriga will be nearly overhead when Orion crosses the meridian around midnight.

Let us know if you see Lovejoy and share any photos!

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