Nights like these were made for amateur astronomers. A cool 27 degree night with little wind and no moon awaited. Preparing for the session has always been half the fun. Creating a mental list of what is going to be out and putting on some coffee as various layers of clothing are added to try and eke out as much precious time as possible before the cold finally wins out and ends the night. Tonight, there were few things on the list after a sunset viewing of Venus and Mercury less than 1 degree apart. The main event was a comet recently discovered in August of 2014 dropping by the neighborhood, which goes by the name Lovejoy C/2014 Q2.
The hunt for Lovejoy began with Skysafari+ on the iPhone 6. Located on this night, near the constellation Taurus and in between stars Nu Tauri and Xi Tauri; Lovejoy shined at a magnitude +4.9 and was visible to the naked eye even from the orange/yellow light polluted sky of Southwest Virginia. Starting out with the 2 in. Q70 38mm, Lovejoy popped into life at 32x magnification revealing a diffused cloud with a slightly greenish/gray color along with a surprisingly noticeable nucleus. While others have been able to make out its tail, I was not able to do so, most likely due to light pollution. From 32x to 200x magnification, Lovejoy continued to impress with the best views being in the 48x to 96x range.
This comet was much more impressive than previous ones viewed, including Lulin in February of 2009 and Panstarrs in June 2014. If you have a telescope or set of binoculars, January will continue to be a good time for observing. But don’t worry if you miss out, most estimates have Lovejoy returning in about 8,000 years.