January 2 – Glowing With Pride

Today’s factismal: Citizen scientist Terry Lovejoy has discovered five comets, one of which can be seen tonight!

If there’s one thing an astronomer likes better than dark nights, it is citizen scientists. That’s because folks like you and Terry Lovejoy who go out and watch the stars are responsible for pretty amazing discoveries. WHo is Terry Lovejoy? He’s a citizen scientist who lives in Australia and searches for comets as a hobby. Thus far, he’s identified five different comets, all of which now carry his name.

Comet Lovejoy as seen from the ISS (Image courtesy Dan Burbank, NASA)

Comet Lovejoy as seen from the ISS
(Image courtesy Dan Burbank, NASA)

The most recent of the comets that he’s discovered is Lovejoy C/20011 W3. This comet comes from far, far out in the Solar System; when it is at its farthest, it is 157 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is. For simplicity’s sake, astronomers call the distance between the Sun and the Earth an Astronomical Unit and abbreviate it AU; so comet Lovejoy goes 157 AU out. For comparison, the most distant man-made object is Voyager 1 which is a mere 130 AU. Over the course of about 166 years, comet Lovejoy goes from its farthest point to a place just 0.00555 AU and back out again. That close approach makes this comet a “sun grazer”. And the cool thing about sun grazers is that they frequently become “great comets” that are so bright they can be seen in the daytime!

Comet Lovejoy as it speeds toward the Sun (Image courtesy US Naval Observatory)

Comet Lovejoy as it speeds toward the Sun
(Image courtesy US Naval Research Laboratory)

Unfortunately for us, comet Lovejoy isn’t likely to be a great comet; it has already passed as close to the Sun as it is going to on this trip and it only got as bright as the planet Venus (which is still pretty darn bright!). Fortunately for us, comet Lovejoy did get bright enough to see with the naked eye (though a pair of binoculars really makes it “pop”!) and is located near the one constellation that everyone knows – Orion! For the next month, comet Lovejoy will appear to move from Rigel, the red star that makes up Orion’s foot, to the Pleiades, the “seven sisters” that dance near Orion. (And, if you are out looking at the comet with your binoculars, spare a little time to look at the middle of Orion’s sword and at the Pleiades through the binoculars. You’ll be amazed at what you find!)

Comet Lovejoy's path through the heavens (Image courtesy Sky and Telescope)

Comet Lovejoy’s path through the heavens
(Image courtesy Sky and Telescope)

Being a sun grazing comet, comet Lovejoy won’t be around forever. There are literally dozens of other comets that dive-bomb the Sun each day, many of which never make it back out to where they were born. If you’d like to learn more about comets (and maybe identify a few yourself), then head over to SOHO’s Comet Hunting page:
http://sungrazer.nrl.navy.mil/index.php?p=guide

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