View of Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 on January 12, near its peak brightness. (Damian Peach)

Comet Lovejoy Fades Away

The comet put on an unexpectedly fine show for many months.

View of Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 on January 12, near its peak brightness. (Damian Peach)

May 11 update: Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is continuing to fade and is now approaching magnitude 8. It will remain visible in small telescopes (and even binoculars) for another month or two as it passes by the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) towards Draco. Barring some unexpected flare-up, this update concludes our coverage of Comet Lovejoy.

April 8 update: Fading Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is continuing its journey northward from Cassiopeia toward Polaris, the north star. Although it is just a little brighter than magnitude 7, Lovejoy is still a binocular object, especially if you view it from reasonably dark skies. From Canadian latitudes, the comet is presently circumpolar — which means you can view it at any time of night since it neither rises or sets.

To locate Comet Lovejoy, first get your bearings with the centre star chart found in the current issue of SkyNews. Once you’ve located the constellation Cassiopeia in the sky, refer to our chart below for the comet’s exact position on the dates indicated. In binoculars, expect to see round, fuzzy glow. If you’re viewing under dark skies away from city lights, you might even detect the brightest portion of the comet’s tail.

Comet Lovejoy chart
Path of Comet Lovejoy through to May 11.

This is the second time in less than a year that a comet discovered by Australian Terry Lovejoy is putting on a modestly impressive display for backyard stargazers. This is Lovejoy’s fifth cometary find, which he discovered on images he made with an 8-inch telescope last August. At that time, the comet was very faint, but in the past few months it has steadily brightened as it approaches the Sun. On January 7 the comet was at its closest to Earth at a distance of 70-million kilometres — roughly half as far away as the Sun — and reached perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun) on January 30.

Puerzer-Comet Lovejoy - January 19
“This photo of Comet Lovejoy was taken last night from the front deck of my house on January 19 during a (very) short period when the clouds parted,” wrote Tony Puerzer of Nanimo, British Columbia.

How long will Comet Lovejoy remain a binocular sight? It’s difficult to say with certainty. These icy visitors from the chilly edge of the solar system are notoriously unpredictable. As famed Canadian comet hunter David Levy once quipped, “comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” Only one thing is certain — this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. C/2014 Q2 is a long-period comet that won’t be back for another 8,000 years!

McDonald-Comet Lovejoy-Jan13
Fine wide-field image of the comet from Victoria, British Columbia, on the night of January 13. Aldebaran (the brightest star in Taurus) is the orange point of light on the left side of the frame while the Pleiades star cluster are prominent near the top. (John McDonald)

March 9 update: Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is slowly fading and is presently a little brighter than magnitude 6 as it moves through the circumpolar constellation Cassiopeia, as shown in the chart below. I’m still able to see the comet in my 8×40 binoculars used under the light-polluted skies of down town Victoria, British Columbia. On March 15, Lovejoy will brush by 2.6-magnitude star Delta (δ) Cassiopeiae. The centre of the comet is less than 10 arc minutes from the star at around 11:30 p.m., EDT. 

February 18 update: Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is still visible in the evening sky as it moves through Andromeda and toward Cassiopeia. Although it has lost a little of its lustre from its peak last month, it continues to shine at about magnitude 5 and is fading slower than expected. Indeed, I had little trouble viewing it in 8×40 binoculars from downtown Victoria, British Columbia, last night. The comet is noticeably smaller and fainter compared with a month ago, but remains a fine sight.

January 26 update: The comet has dimmed slightly from its peak brightness and now shines at about magnitude 4.5 — still an easy binocular target. By the time the Moon is leaves the evening sky early next month, Lovejoy is likely to have dimmed another ½ magnitude. Observing from Colmenar, Spain, Ian Sharp (who captured the image below) notes, “the tail is certainly not as long and bright as it has been in the last two weeks, it looks to be about 6 degrees long in this image compared to about 9 or 10 degrees before.” Visually, however, the tail remains an elusive sight. 

This view of the comet was recorded on January 24. (Ian Sharp.)

January 14 update: Viewing the comet from Metchosin, British Columbia, Bill Weir writes, ” with my 15×70 binos the tail of the comet stretched right out of the field of view. I had a nice long look at it with my 6-inch Dob at 30× and 60×. Great compact bright core with a stellar pseudo nucleus. At 30× I could follow the tail way out and noticed an interesting knotty texture to it.”

January 8 update: This evening before moonrise, I saw the comet from my light-polluted home in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, with my 7×35 binoculars. It was a snap to sweep up this little puffball with only a general idea of its position.  Observing from Chilliwack, British Columbia, SkyNews contributing editor Ken Hewitt-White was able to spot Lovejoy and says, “I observed the comet last night (January 7), a clear sky arriving right on cue after the full Moon. At 7:30 p.m., before moonrise, the comet in my 10-inch Dob at 47× was a large, spherical, aqua-tinted haze with a bright nucleus. No discernable tail visible in my suburban sky. But I’m pleased to say the comet was faintly visible to the naked eye.”

Dyer - Comet Lovejoy, January 6.
Comet Lovejoy on January 6, 2015. Photographed with a 92mm refractor telescope for a close-up view with a field of roughly 4×3 degrees. The green coma and blue ion tail are prominent. The tail was just barely visible through binoculars. (Alan Dyer)

January 5, 2015, update: SkyNews associate editor Alan Dyer sent in the photo below and reports, “I shot this on the evening of January 5, 2015. The scene shows Orion rising, with Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) at upper right as a fuzzy green spot, in a moonlit sky over the formations of the City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico. The Moon, a day past full, had risen and was behind the rocks lighting the sky and tops of the formations. Scattered light illuminated the scene. The comet was obvious in binoculars and a very careful look revealed it as barely visible to the naked eye, even in the moonlight. But you had to know just where to look! The photo shows just a hint of a tail. Once the Moon gets out of the way this could be a very nice dark sky comet.”

Orion and Comet Lovejoy over City of Rocks
Comet Lovejoy on January 5, 2015, from New Mexico. This is a single, 13-second exposure at f/2.5 and ISO 2000 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D camera, untracked. (Alan Dyer)

December 31, 2014 update: The comet is currently shining at magnitude 5.0, which means even with the light of the Moon waxing toward full (full Moon occurs Sunday evening, January 4), Lovejoy should be an easy binocular find. It’s likely the comet will double in brightness to magnitude 4.0 in the coming weeks.

From Saskatchewan: This view of the comet and globular cluster M79 during their close encounter on December 29. (Tenho Tuomi)

December 28, 2014 update: I got my first look at the comet last night. Even from downtown Victoria, British Columbia, with a waxing crescent Moon low in the west and scattered clouds across the sky, Lovejoy was an easy catch in my 15×45 image-stabilized binoculars. I was pleased by how well the comet showed. I didn’t need a detailed chart — just a general idea of where the comet was — and with only a few seconds of casual sweeping, I had it in view. Lovejoy is a conspicuous ball of softly glowing light. I couldn’t make out any sign of the tail, but given the viewing conditions (and the faintness of the tail), this isn’t surprising.

SkyNews associate editor Alan Dyer captured this view of the comet on December 23 while in New Mexico. "It was easy to see in binoculars as a 5th magnitude fuzzy star," he reports. "I could just see the comet naked eye, knowing exactly where to look, however, I’m at 32° North latitude."
From New Mexico: The comet approaches globular cluster M79 on December 27-28, while. “The comet was naked eye even with the waxing Moon still up but setting into the west, though only if you knew just where to look,” reports photographer Alan Dyer. “In binoculars it was an obvious fuzzball with the tail just barely visible extending to the north.”