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.


Solar System Ambassador

Amy by Stu CroppedIn January of this year I became a Solar System Ambassador for NASA/JPL! This is a volunteer position who’s function is public outreach. This last Monday I gave a 2 hour presentation for our local LIR (Learning in Retirement) group. See – I can look professional if I want! No tin foil hats here!

What a fun group of adults who asked lots of great questions. I must be honest, I was a bit intimidated by these folks, they are very informed! We talked about asteroids and comets since this year has been a whirlwind of activity in both of those areas. I was a bit nervous at first, but I think things went well. I learned a lot about presenting in that venue! I wasn’t used to using a microphone (I forgot to turn it on twice!). Hearing me is usually not a problem! I only had one technical problem but I worked that out too!

Thank you LIR for letting me have the opportunity to talk with your members! I hope to see you again next year!

If you want to find a Solar System Ambassador in your area please follow the link above. There’s an interactive map for you to find someone in your state!


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.



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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