Comet Lovejoy delights after the destruction of ISON

Amateur astronomers’ disappointment over the destruction of Comet ISON has been eased by the fact that another visitor, Comet Lovejoy, is putting on a fine show in the sky.

Comet Lovejoy
Comet 2013 R1 (Lovejoy) photographed from Cumbria with a digital camera. Credit: Stuart Atkinson

Comet Lovejoy has brightened to around 4th magnitude and has a bright and condensed head, or coma, making it easy to see in binoculars as it crosses northern skies.

Telescopes and time exposures with digital cameras bring out its fainter tail streaming away from this coma, making the comet resemble a spring onion, or scallion.

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The comet was discovered on 7 September by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy when it was only 14th magnitude. It takes around 7,000 years to orbit the Sun.

Comet Lovejoy's track
The path of Comet Lovejoy in December and January

The comet, officially labelled Comet 2013 R1 (Lovejoy), spends December travelling from Bootes across the constellations of Corona Borealis and Hercules.

From mid-northern latitudes it can be seen in the evening sky and then rising again in the morning, getting higher as dawn approaches.

Our chart shows the track of the comet, indicated by little comet symbols showing its position at 0h UT on the dates marked. These tails are purely symbolic. In reality, comets’ tails point away from the Sun as the solar wind pushes them out into space.

Our lovely photo of the comet was taken by amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson, who runs a number of space blogs, from Cumbria on the morning of 1 December. He stacked separate six-second images taken with a DSLR camera at ISO 3200, f/1.8, 50 mm lens.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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