By Peter Becker
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By all means get out to have a look at Comet Lovejoy. Binoculars will show it well as a definite hazy disc.
Glowing at +4th magnitude, it is visible to unaided eyes in a dark sky, although disguising itself as another faint star. Look close, and you may see it is no ordinary star. This one is fuzzy.
The comet is high up in the evening sky. The moon is growing this week; the crescent you see this weekend will become a first-quarter phase on Monday, Jan. 26. Look for the comet before the moonlight becomes too bright!
One of our readers, Parks Squyres, read the column in the Mail Tribune, a newspaper in Tuscon, Arizona. Thanks to GateHouse Media, Looking Up has been appearing in a whole constellation of news outlets.
Parks sent a wonderful photograph he took of Comet Lovejoy, taken from his patio north of Tuscon. "It was a beautiful sight in my 11" telescope," Parks said. "You could also see it as a faint round ball about 1/4 the size of the moon with 8 40 binoculars."
He added, "My telescope is an 11" Celestron using a Hyperstar adapter and a modified Canon 350D camera. The comet photo was made from 40 each stacked 15 second images. Actually not that hard to do as my camera is controlled with a computer and everything is automatic."
Astro-photographs typically reveal details and colors you won't likely see with your eyes, even in a telescope eyepiece. Photos are very useful for both the aesthetics and scientific studies of the heavens above.
Don't be disillusioned if you do not see the same splendor. To the eyes, the comet is much more subtle. I examined it the other night with a 10-inch reflecting telescope. The greenish hue was faintly detectable. The bright head of the comet was highly concentrated in the center. Also called the coma, the comet's head is the ball of gas and dust coming off the nucleus. The faint gas tail was only barely seen in the telescope. Still, it was wonderful!
Like the comet, wisps of cosmic nebulae and very distant galaxies are relatively hard to see with your eye to the telescope, while photographs can reveal much more.
The very fact cosmic sights are so hard to reach makes them all the more fascinating. Like the child reaching upward and yet not grasping the stars, it does not keep the child from trying. We stand in wonder of the vastness, the mystery, the deeper meaning.
Look for the comet this weekend as it slowly glides up past the constellations Aries the Ram and Triangulum the Triangle. You can start with the glittering Pleiades star cluster to trace your way to the spot. Face southward after darkness falls.
Meanwhile look low, west-southwest during twilight for the brilliant planet Venus. To the lower right is planet Mercury, not as bright.
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Keep looking up!