Sunday, January 11, 2015
A Beautiful Comet Passes By
A faint but beautiful comet passed by the Earth recently, and the accompanying picture shows you why so many of us love observing these icy visitors from deep space.
Called Comet Lovejoy (after its discoverer, Australian astronomy hobbyist, Terry Lovejoy), the comet passed closest to Earth on Jan. 7th. It wasn't that close -- 44 million miles away. That's why you really need a telescope to see the comet well.
But in a telescope, as you can see in our image, made by Austrian astro-photographer Gerald Rhemann, a beautiful coma and tail have already formed. (As always, click on the picture to see a bigger version.)
Comets are chunks of ice (with dust frozen within them) left over from the formation of our solar system. Comet Lovejoy is estimated to be about 2 to 3 miles in diameter. But when the ice comes nearer to the Sun, as Comet Lovejoy is doing until it rounds the Sun January 30th, the Sun's heat and wind evaporates the comet's ice and releases the dust that has been locked up inside it for billions of years.
As a result, a cloud of evaporated material form around the comet. Called a "coma," the cloud around Lovejoy is already about 400,000 miles in diameter!
The Sun's energy and particles push material away from the coma, producing the long and twisting tail we see, stretching for millions of miles, always pointing opposite the Sun. The tail of the comet is very tenuous -- astronomers like to say that a "comet's tail is the closest thing to nothing that something can be and still be something."
After Comet Lovejoy leaves our neighborhood, we estimate it won't return to the inner solar system for more than 8,000 years. So enjoy it now. You can do a Google image search and see pictures from many other astronomical photographers around the globe. (Just to avoid confusion, we should mention that this is the fifth comet Mr. Lovejoy has discovered, and so there were other Comet Lovejoy's in the past. The official nerdy name for this comet is C/2014 Q2.)
If you have good binoculars or a telescope, observing instructions can be found at: