Look up at the night sky from now until the end of January and you may see something surprising: a green comet is going to be dazzling the sky before speeding off towards the sun. Comet Lovejoy, named after Terry Lovejoy, the man who discovered the comet back in August, is making a rare appearance to ring in the new year.
Comet Lovejoy, or C/2014 Q2, glows green as the result of cyanogen, a poisonous gas that glows green when hit by sunlight. In order to spot the comet in the night sky, first look for the easy to find three evenly spaced stars – otherwise known as Orion’s Belt. Comet Lovejoy is to the right and slightly up from that; 9:30 p.m. is the optimum time to try to look for it as it at its brightest at that time.
“If you can find Orion shining high in the southeast after dinnertime,” says Sky & Telescope senior editor J. Kelly Beatty, “you’ll be looking in the right direction to track down Comet Lovejoy.”
The comet should be visible to the naked eye if you are far from any light pollution, though you will get a much better view of the comet if you use binoculars or a telescope. Don’t miss this opportunity to see the comet since once it’s gone, it will not be visible for another 8,000 years.
It crosses the celestial equator on January 9th, making it more clearly visible to the northern hemisphere. This is the fifth comet that Terry Lovejoy has discovered with R1 Lovejoy lighting up the sky in 2013 and W3 Lovejoy putting on a show in 2011 – though both only visible in the southern hemisphere.
“There’s a lot of beautiful stuff up there in the night sky,” said Sydney Observatory astronomer Geoff Wyatt. “We all know the hit-parade things – the moon, the stars and the planets. But every now and then you get something out of left field and it’s like a surprise birthday present.”