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January 11, 2015

Grab the binoculars for Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy made its closest pass to Earth on Jan. 7, but the coming days may offer a better viewing opportunity as the new moon beckons. Of course, we may have to wait for the skies to clear during the next few days.

Unless you live far out in the country, with little light pollution, you'll need a pair of binoculars or a telescope to see the comet, which is about 43 million miles from Earth and thought to be traveling nearly 15 miles a second. It's green, due to cyanogen and diatomic carbon gases emanating from the comet which glow green when cosmic rays pass through them.

Bob King of Universe Today tells how to find the comet in the night sky:

This week, as Lovejoy continues trekking north, you can use bright orangey Aldebaran in Taurus and the Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters star cluster, to “triangulate” your way to the comet. Look for a glowing fuzzball. In 10×50 and 8×40 binoculars, it’s obviously different from a star — all puffed up with a brighter center. The 50mm glass even shows a hint of the coma’s blue color caused by carbon molecules fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight and a faint, streak-like tail extending to the northeast. With the naked eye, at first you might think it’s just a dim star; closer scrutiny reveals the star has a hazy appearance, pegging it as a comet.

According to CNN, the comet was discovered in August by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer from Brisbane, Australia:

The comet has Terry Lovejoy's name because he was the first person on Earth to spot it, an increasingly difficult accomplishment since he's competing with professional observatories. It's the fifth comet that he's discovered, but he denies having a secret formula for finding them.

"There is no real secret,"Lovejoy says. "My job in IT (information technology) has helped me a lot with automation of the telescope and the actual detection of new comets."

To follow the comet's path through the sky, here's a nice printable finder chart.

The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 has scheduled a live feed of the comet beginning at 2 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 12.