Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) has become visible to the naked eye and predicted to get brighter over the next couple of weeks!
This is the fifth comet discovered by Australian “amateur” astronomer Terry Lovejoy. The 2011 comet that bears his name made a spectacular pass through the Solar system. This one may not be quite so flamboyant, but its position and brightness make it a boon for observers. On 7 January it will pass about 70 million kilometers (44 million miles) from Earth, and it’s predicted to peak around 4th magnitude; easily visible from dark skies without optical aid.
Comet Lovejoy is passing near the constellation of Orion, making it easier to find. It will also glide past Taurus and the Pleiades, providing photographers with the opportunity for some awesome imagery. It’s moving more or less north, so it climbs higher in the sky for Northern Hemisphere observers.
If you want to see this comet for yourself, and you should, it rises a couple of hours after sunset. For now, I suggest waiting until around 9 p.m. or so to look, since it will be higher above the horizon. It rises earlier every day, and in early January it’ll be high up by the time it gets dark, although the nearly full Moon will make seeing it a bit difficult; after 7 January or so the Moon will rise late enough that it won’t be much of a problem. Sky and Telescope has excellent maps with the comet’s path on them. If you are experiencing bad weather, it is too cold, or just want to stay indoors, the Virtual Telescope Project will have live online viewings on 6 January and 11 January.
Comet Lovejoy has earned the nickname “The Green Comet” because in photographs the comet appears green due to the way its constituent molecules glow when reacting to sunlight. That color may not be apparent to the eye when you see it, but long exposures using cameras bring out the green hue.
Lovejoy is on a long-period orbit, taking about 14,000 years to go around the Sun. The orbit takes it out to a distance of nearly 90 billion kilometers (for comparison, Neptune orbits at a distance of 4.5 billion kilometers). So Lovejoy got its start way out in the Solar system, possibly as an Oort Cloud object. The orbit is also highly inclined to the plane of the solar system; at 80°, almost perpendicular, to the paths the planets take. Which is why it’s getting so much easier for northern observers to see; it’s heading up and out of the ecliptic. This may not be the first time this comet has passed through the central Solar system, but it’s a good bet it’s the last time any of us will get to see it.
Here’s a nifty three-hour time-lapse animation showing the comet’s movement, taken by Phil Hart on 28 December 2014.