Comet Lovejoy – Check It Out!

At our astronomy club’s last gathering, someone mentioned that comet Lovejoy was both visible and within reach of a good pair of binoculars. Well, as you can tell, I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell as far as observing is concerned so I thought maybe I should try it.

Comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy

I have a thing about being cold. I don’t like it. I really don’t like it. I’d much rather curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch I.Q. (one of my favorite movies that has a comet in it) than go out in the cold and try to find one.

I just couldn’t turn my back on this one though.  After all, it was up early, relatively bright and should be easy to spot in my backyard. All the requirements of a quick observing session have been met.

Thursday night I looked up the position of the comet on my Sky Safari. The comet made a triangle with Rigel in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus. No problem!

I put on my snow pants, boots, jacket and scarf and headed outside with my trusty 10 x 50 Nikon binoculars. I kept them inside my jacket so the lenses wouldn’t fog up on me right away.

When I got outside I realized that it wasn’t so bad! Cold, yes, but not too bad at all. The view from my backyard was actually pretty good! I could see Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades against a fairly dark sky. I eyeballed where I thought the comet should be. I had to sweep a little back and forth but within minutes I found it!

It was a fuzzball, no tail. Apparently the tail is pointing towards us at this time. I was really thrilled! I went inside to make sure I was seeing the right object. I checked the star pattern around the comet on my software. Yep, I saw it alright!

It’s still visible in the Northern latitudes so get out there and check it out! Here’s some info on where to find it – Comet Lovejoy

I officially logged my first observation of 2015. So far so good!


Looking Forward to the Comet 209P/LINEAR Meteor Shower

209P Linear meteor shower
Radiant for 209P/LINEAR shower early this Saturday morning.

The weather is looking great here for the Comet 209P/LINEAR meteor shower. The Camelopardalids could produce as many as 200 meteors per hour early Saturday morning between 12:30 and 4 a.m., peaking around 2 a.m. CDT.

What is so neat about this shower is that it’s never been seen before, and the farther north you live in the viewing zone, the more meteors you are likely to see.

The last time I clocked meteors for the Astronomical League’s meteor certificate, I brought several copies of star charts of the radiant area of the sky, and as I saw meteors, I drew them on a chart and numbered them. On a separate sheet of paper, I made notes on brightness, color, speed, etc.

You can also do some real science by submitting your observations to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. All the information you need to work on your meteor certificate is available on the Astronomical League’s website.

After midnight tonight, you’ll find Amy and I perched on our lawn chairs facing north, with pencils and clipboards poised and ready. We’ll be busily adding hours towards our Astronomical League Meteor Program Certificate, (meteors or not) and having a great time. Hope you’re all out there, too!

Please be sure to write us and tell us about the meteors you see.


Comet Lovejoy

Early in December I decided to try to find Comet Lovejoy. While all eyes were on ISON, I felt sorry for Lovejoy. Here it was, high in the sky still putting on a show and no one seemed to be paying attention! I checked first to see if Lovejoy was going to be visible at a reasonable hour. This is an important criteria for me. I struggle with the whole ‘should I sleep or should I get out of bed and go observing’ thing.  I really hate  being cold, so usually sleep wins out!  Good news! I should be able to see it around 5am.

Before I went to bed I checked the star charts again in an attempt to burn into my memory the exact position of the comet. This almost never works by the way.  I checked my 10×50 binoculars and made sure I had warm clothes. It’s December in Wisconsin and I really hate being cold.

What I was really hoping for was to be able to see Lovejoy through my patio doors, avoiding the whole subzero thing. I told you I hate the cold.  Sadly, that was not to be. Lovejoy was going to be too far north and in the tree of my backyard. Oh – but wait – I could stand in my driveway and see Lovejoy over my house! Well that was better than not seeing it at all, so I was happy.

The next morning I rolled out of bed at 4:30.  I threw on some warm clothes, grabbed my jacket and binoculars and went out front.  I was pretty sure I knew where to look but once again my memory failed me. I told you that never works. Back into the house to check my star charts.  After scrutinizing a star chart I went back out and sure enough, there she was! A faint fuzz ball. The moon was a bit bright, so I was unable to discern any tail, but I could see the star like center of the comet.  It was truly amazing!

The best part was that I was able to get up, find Lovejoy and make it back to bed before my hubby left the house. Who says you can’t do astronomy in your jammies?


Comet Caucus

Left to right: Comets Linear, ISON, Lovejoy and Encke. Click on the image to see a larger image.

Comet ISON is getting a lot of attention in the news these days, but lately there were four comets visible, and it has been a great time to find some dark skies and go comet hunting.

Last week, our good friend Tony took these amazing shots of four comets that were hovering in the sky over his Quantum Skies Observatory in Pulaski. Thanks for sharing, Tony!

This comet montage includes:

  • Encke – 5 shots of 60 sec each
  • LINEAR – 5 shots of 120 sec each
  • ISON – 6 shots of 120 sec each
  • Lovejoy – 25 shots of 300 sec each tracking the comet itself

All shots were taken by Anthony J. Kroes on 11/8/2013 with a Canon T1i DSLR at ISO 1600 through a Tele Vue 127mm Refractor on a German Equatorial Mount. Images captured with BackyardEOS software, stacked and calibrated with DeepSkyStacker, processed with ImagesPlus and Photoshop CS6.


Elusive ISON

Just got back from my first attempt at viewing sunrisecomet ISON with my 10×50 binoculars. It’s tough this time of year, crawling out of a nice, warm bed and stepping alone into the dark, 19-degree Wisconsin morning. But the sky was clear and there were enough pointer stars nearby in Virgo for me to give it a try.

Typically, I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. The rusty old Buick was parked in the way, and keys needed to be found to do a round of musical vehicles. Then, I wasn’t more than a block from my house before I realized my Out of Gas light was blinking. I needed to pull into the Shell station down the road and grab a few gallons before I drove to the outskirts of town.

I arrived at my usual Easterly observing site, and as my eyes were getting dark-adapted, a pickup truck lazed towards me from a farm up ahead. By the time I had explained that I was all right and actually trying to look at a comet on the other side of his truck, well, astronomical dawn had arrived and my night vision had left the building. The ISON party was over for the night.

Dick, a member of our local club, sent me this Visibility of Comet ISON chart that shows when ISON will be visible around here in the near future. Hopefully the moon, the clouds, and the snow will all cooperate again soon so I crawl out of bed and try again.


Comet updates

Pan-STARRS C/2011 L4 with ion trail.

During our local astronomy club meeting last week, someone shared a recent picture of comet Pan-STARRS C/2011 L4, and I thought “Hey. I thought that comet was long gone! Maybe I should write an update on the comets.”

I discovered that L4 is still viewable in telescopes larger than 4” at a +11 magnitude, and photographing it reveals an amazing tail. An ion tail and a dust tail are clearly visible, while an anti-tail is pointing in the opposite direction towards the sun. I hadn’t heard of anti-tails, but apparently they form when the pressure of sunlight blows fresh dust back from the comet’s head.

L4 is making its way through the Little Dipper in June.


In the meantime, ISON is currently streaking towards us at a leisurely 50,351 mph. Touted as possibly the brightest thing since sliced bread, ISON may not put on the show that everyone promised. It stopped brightening at the beginning of this year and has stagnated around +16 magnitude. Although it briefly sprouted a bright tail, the coma faded and became smaller and less condensed.

Everyone is still waiting to see just what kind of show ISON will put on, and we’ll know the answer to that around November 10 when ISON is expected to be visible to the naked eye. All we can do now is keep our finger’s crossed.



One more peek at L4

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Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4) on 3/29 using a 90mm Stellarvue. Photo courtesy of Tony Kroes at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.
M42 and Comet/M31 shots (4/4 and 4/5) with a 300mm Zenit Camera lens.
Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4) and M31 on 4/4/13-4/5/13 using a 300mm Zenit Camera lens. Photo courtesy of Tony Kroes at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.

Our good friend Tony was out stargazing last week and sent us these spectacular pictures of Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4).

When Amy and I were at our club’s Messier Marathon this past weekend, some club members were showing off recent pictures of the comet, and it occurred to Amy and I that we should really get out and take another look at it before it’s gone.

Tony reports that the comet was still visible in binoculars last Thursday (4/4/13), and that he and a couple of other club members were able to view the comet with the tail and M31 at the same time using wider field binoculars.

He also reports that the comet is now about 20 degrees above the horizon in the evening sky just as the sun sinks below the horizon, and is difficult to see because of the sky glow. He said that mornings are better here in Wisconsin, when the comet is up 15-20 degrees around 4:00 – 5:00 a.m.

But as Tony notes in his email, we need to have a morning soon when it isn’t either raining or snowing, and those days are few this time of year in Wisconsin. Just this early morning, we received at least three inches of new snow. I’m hoping that all this precipitation will actually bring those May flowers soon!


Comet Panstarrs!

Photo by Tony Kroes on 3/13/13 at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.

Yay!! Woo Hoo!!! Wooot woooot! After three days of snow and clouds, Wednesday night turned out to be our best bet for seeing comet Panstarrs. We finally had sunshine all day!  I bee-lined it over to Lynn’s house right after work. She gathered up her warm clothes, grabbed a bite to eat and looked up the directions to Tony’s. 

Do we feel guilty about missing a club meeting? Naah, we just HAD to see this comet! As we drove in rush hour traffic we could see the sun slowly sinking in the western sky. As each turn took us closer to our comet encounter, we got more and more excited. We knew this could be our only chance of seeing it! It seemed like we hit every red light on the way out of town. We were sure we’d get there too late. Lynn kept watch on the GPS’s estimated time of arrival. We were making good time.

Photo by Tony Kroes
Photo by Tony Kroes at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.

We met Tony outside his house and we trekked out past the barn, winding up a path to the observatory, then through the snow and up a hill to a flattened out spot in the snow. We all had our binoculars and Tony and his wife Tara brought out their cameras.  The crescent moon hung about 40 degrees up, a guidepost for finding the comet.  Soon the sun sank below the horizon and we scanned the sky.  Using an outstretched arm with our hand in a fist to measure 10 degrees, we estimated the height of the comet. It should have been 10 degrees below the moon, roughly halfway between the horizon and the moon.

Now’s it’s around 7:20, our feet are frozen bricks, cameras are seizing up and we’re not sure we can make it back to the car in the dark without taking a tumble. No comet yet, but we’re not giving up.  Around 7:40 Tony’s phone rang – a fellow club member called, they had spotted it! A brief moment of disappointment that we didn’t find it first gave way to a frantic search. We all had our binocs carefully scanning, straight down from the moon and slightly to the right until – there it was! I was so amazed by the beauty of it, the bright nucleus and the hazy tail behind it. I couldn’t see it naked eye, (that whole visual contrast thing)  but Lynn was able to.

The picture above was taken by Tony. After a few seconds of exposure the comet seems to pop in the picture! It looks like it was just blazing in the sky but it was really more of a fuzzy without binoculars. When we first spotted Panstarrs it was about 5 degrees above those trees on the left of the photo. It didn’t take long for it to set, maybe 20 minutes or so. We kept watching it until the photo ops were gone and our feet just couldn’t take it any longer. It  was a beautiful sight, well worth the trek and cold!

We made it back to town in time to meet up with our club members at the pizza joint we frequent after our meetings. A hot cup of coffee warmed my hands and a bar-b-que pizza warmed my tummy. We exchanged stories of our adventure and they caught us up with club news and the upcoming Messier Marathon! Watch for that adventure in April.

Not a bad night!

Another successful observing session: great fun, great people, great viewing!


Crossing Our Fingers for Wednesday

We’ve made two attempts to see

Photo taken last week from New South Wales, Australia
Photo taken last week from New South Wales, Australia

Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4), and both times, we encountered a low cloudbank in the western sky that prevented us from seeing it. All other evenings, it’s been cloudy or snowing.

Although not yet confirmed as an object for the Wild Goose Chase Observing Club, its potential is growing by the day.

Next window of opportunity for us is Wednesday, March 13 at sunset. Wish us luck!!


Upcoming Comets

Now that we’ve had our fill of asteroid action for a while, let’s look forward to comet-carvingsomething a little calmer that’s heading our way this year. Two very bright comets are on the horizon, and one later this year could be the brightest in recorded history. I was fortunate enough to stand in the Arizona desert in 1986 and see Haley’s Comet, and I’m hoping that 2013 will be just as memorable.

Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4) will be its brightest on March 10 and will hang around until about the middle of April. After swinging around the sun, Pan-STARRS will pass through the constellations Pisces and Andromeda, and will be perfectly positioned for us to see here in the Northern hemisphere. It is expected to be visible to the naked eye and should have an impressive tail.

But the real excitement is building for ISON (Comet C/2012 S1). On Nov. 28, ISON will pass within 680,000 miles of the surface of the sun, much closer than Mercury. Because it is passing so close to the Sun, it is hoped that large quantities of ice and dust will boil off and give us an impressive show. ISON may even be clearly visible during the daylight hours during the days leading up to Christmas. Well, unless the Sun breaks it into pieces first.

Although there are always comets in the sky, most of them pass too far away from the sun to develop large, visible tails. The nuclei of a comet is primarily made up of ice, dust and small rocky particles, and when it gets close to the Sun, the Sun’s heat vaporizes the ice of the comet and blows the ice and dust away with the solar wind – which is why a comet’s tail always points away from the sun.

Fortunately, we haven’t heard anything about either comet passing too close to the Earth for comfort. I mean sure, Jupiter was hit back in 1994 by Comet Shoemaker-Levy, and again in 2009 by another comet that left a bruise about the size of the Pacific Ocean. But hey — we’ve got nothing to worry about, right? (Note: See earlier Bruce Willis entry).


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