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So, after delighting us for literally months, Comet Lovejoy has just about gone. It is still visible through a telescope, and long exposure photographs still show a hint of a tail, but to all intents and purposes its time with us is over. But what a treat it was! Comet observers and casual skywatchers alike were able to follow its long, long trek across the sky for almost six months. It first climbed up into our northern sky from beneath Orion, at Christmas last year, and then slowly trekked across our sky, memorably passing the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters - I wonder how many thousands of photographs were taken of it then? - before heading up towards and then through the W of Cassiopeia and arcing up through the Little Dipper, still sporting a subtle, lovely tail. Here's the very last image I took of it, back on June 10th...
(Lovejoy is that tiny green smudge near the middle there...)
Now its show is over, but it leaves us with many happy memories, and in years to come I'm sure that many of us will look back on it very fondly. So, farewell Lovejoy, and thank you!
Well, if you're a regular visitor to popular websites like Spaceweather.com, or Universe Today, or a member of one of the many facebook groups dedicated to observing and photographing comets (and if you're not, I can hughly recommend the FB Group "Comet Watch"), you'll know that southern hemisphere observers have recently been enjoying observing and imaging a lovely looking comet in the twilight after sunset. Beautiful photographs of Comet C/2014 Q1 PANSTARRS (yes, another one, I know!) are everywhere at the moment, and they clearly show it looking like a miniature, fainter version of the much-loved and fondly remembered Comet Hale-Bopp from 1996/97, with a distinctive "v" shape comprising a long blue-white gas tail and a more curved, yellower dust tail.
This lovely image was taken by Australian astrophotographer and amateur astronomer Kevin Parker...
Kevin told me how he took his beautiful picture (take with an ED100 at F7 and Pentax K-5), which was featured as NASA's "Astronomy Photo of The Day" earlier this week:
"Well, I pointed the scope out the bedroom window looking down Oak St between the trees. Seriously that's what I did... I had to close the bedroom door to keep the cats out as they play havoc with photographing comets, or anything for that matter. They also like to bite the battery wires.;) The weather was clear, a little smoke and haze to the west along with the light pollution of dozens of street lights. I was surprised to see the coma show up on 1 sec finder subs. I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of tails stretching through the 20 sec subs. Was surprised that it was barely visible in 7 x 50 binoculars!"
Kevin's photo looks very natural and subtle, and is a close-up, tracked view. Other photos online are wider angle shots, absolutely stunning portraits of the comet airbrushed on the sky next to brilliant Venus and a beautifully Earthshine-lit crescent Moon. But, like many comet photographs these days, some of the images are rather deceptive; detailed crops of long exposures which are then processed in computers can make even a very faint comet look stunning! But in fact, while PANSTARRS was a naked eye object, briefly, from dark sky locations, it has really been more of a binocular comet, and quite small in the sky. And no, I'm not putting it down because I am jealous of all those people in the southern hemisphere who have seen it. Ok, maybe just a little. But really, if you're feeling disappointed you haven't seen it, don't feel too bad.
So what are the chances of us up here in the north getting to see a decent comet anytime soon?
Our best chance seems to be Comet C/2013 CATALINA, which will grace our skies from mid- to late November, when it will start to poke its head above the eastern horizon before dawn. As November progresses, CATALINA will slowly work its way up a very striking line of planets strung across the eastern sky, first passing Venus, and then Mars, before heading towards but then veering away from Jupiter.
Chart created with Android phone app SKY SAFARI Ignore the tail length; sadly that's not a preciction or simulation, it's just how the software shows all comets!
It should be very exciting to watch CATALINA move up this planet parade, and there should be some excellent photo opportunities along the way, especially when the waning Moon joins the party, heading down the line of planets in the opposite direction, passing them, and the comet, one by one...
...and how bright will this cometary hopscotcher get? As ever, it's impossible to predict that with any accuracy; predicting what a comet will do is like trying to give a cat a bath. But if we're lucky it might be a naked eye object, and should certainly be a nice binocular comet and photographic target. We'll just have to wait and see. Lots more about CATALINA nearer the time of course.
In August and into September it could also be worth aiming your telescopes and cameras towards Gemini and trying to track down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet currently being explored and photographed in stunning detail by the ESA ROSETTA spaceprobe. It will be "challenging" though, and you'll need a telescope to see it. But I know I'll be out on the morning of August 8th when 6P will be moving through the well known star cluster M35...
...and again on September 18th when it passes just north of the Beehive Cluster. And again, as for wondering how bright the comet will get... who knows, we'll just have to wait and see.
So, there we are, there are a couple of comets on our observing horizon, so don't feel too bad about missing out on the latest PANSTARRS diva comet to hit the headlines. And remember, today could be the day a distant, inbound comet is discovered - either the old-fashioned way, by someone peering into an eyepiece, or the modern way, by one of the automated robotic telescope surveys - that has an orbit which will bring it close to us and the Sun at the same time, and might... might... make it a bright naked eye object. We're certainly overdue one! In the meantime, patience everyone, the sky will surprise us again soon. It always does...
Added by: Stuart Atkinson