It’s being called the New Year’s Comet, a fuzzy green ball named Comet Lovejoy that is cruising past Mother Earth as we speak and is scheduled to become visible to the naked eye starting midweek.
The name Comet Lovejoy may ring a bell; one of its namesakes was last in Earth’s vicinity three years ago, when it survived a death plunge into the sun in 2011, then emerged to grow a new tail.
That was C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy). The latest entry into our field of vision is the fifth comet discovery for amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Australia, according to Sky and Telescope, and its name is C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy).
This one will not graze the sun, but Lovejoy Q2 is glowing green throughout January and could be visible to the naked eye starting Wednesday.
“It has been brightening and can now be seen from latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, as it moves toward its closest approach to Earth on January 7, 2015,” says Earthsky.org. “Then it’ll be 43.6 million miles away (70.2 million km). Soon, the comet will be high in Northern Hemisphere skies!”
Just before Christmas this Lovejoy comet lost its tail as its 2011 predecessor did, growing another one that was also whipped away by a solar wind, according to Universe Today.
The best viewing begins just south of the constellation Orion, and unlike with the recent Quadrantid meteor shower, the moon is not interfering with this sight.
The comet enters its brightest two weeks on Wednesday, “crossing Taurus and Aries higher and higher in early evening. It passes 8 degrees west-southwest of the Pleiades on the evening of January 17,” Sky and Telescope reports. “Although the comet begins to recede into the distance after the 7th, its intrinsic brightness should still be increasing a bit; it doesn't reach perihelion [closest approach to the sun] until January 30th.”
It will not get terribly close to the sun, since it will be about 120 million miles from it (Earth is 93 million miles away), Sky and Telescope notes.
“By that date the comet should finally be starting to fade slightly from Earth's point of view, and in late January the Moon returns; it's first-quarter on the 26th,” Sky and Telescope says.
That said, a glimpse may require binoculars or a telescope, especially for those in well-lit areas, and all accounts say it is well worth the trouble. It boasts “long majestic dust and ion tails, as well as the greenish hue characteristic of bright comets,” according to a description by Universe Today, which along with Sky and Telescope gives detailed descriptions on how and where to see this stunner.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime—make that a once-in-several-millennia—opportunity to see this fellow traveler of the solar system, since Lovejoy will not return for 8,000 years.