Keep your eyes on the skies this week and you might spot the glowing, green comet Lovejoy reaching its bright peak in the heavens.
Australian astronomer Terry Lovejoy first spotted comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) in August, when it was still flying past Jupiter and visible only through large telescopes. The comet is plunging through the inner solar system for the first time in more than 11,000 years.
To the delight of sky-watchers, the comet has quickly brightened in the Northern Hemisphere's skies since the December holidays, on its way to reaching its expected mid-January peak.
That increase in brightness has come now despite the comet making its closest approach to Earth on January 7, when it was about 44 million miles (70 million kilometers) from Earth. That is roughly half the distance separating our planet from the sun.
Lovejoy now shines at an estimated magnitude 3.8, making it an easy target for binoculars within city limits. It is even visible as a faint, fuzzy ball of light to the naked eyes from the dark countryside.
Made up of material blown off the comet's surface, its blue-green tail appears in backyard stargazers' photographs to stretch some 10 degrees across the sky. That is equal to about 20 full moon disks!
Despite its incredible length, the tail can't be seen by naked-eye observers. Amateur astrophotographers, however, have been able to pick it up, spotting weird, blob-like features flowing through the streamers that make up the tail, according to spaceweather.com.
Astronomers theorize that these may be blobs of charged gas brewed up by a magnetic storm bubbling within the gassy coma cloaking the comet. Solar flares blasted off the sun have smashed into the comet and perhaps stirred up this magnetic tempest.
Collisions with the solar wind have also triggered waves and ruptures in the comet's tail. Solar blasts similarly trigger geomagnetic storms in Earth's upper atmosphere and cause the aurora borealis to color northern skies. (For more on viewing the northern lights, click here.)
See for Yourself
Currently, you will find the comet in the distinctive winter constellation Taurus, the Bull, riding high in the southwestern sky after 8 p.m. local time.
Taurus is easy to track down as it sits to the right of the famous constellation Orion, the Hunter, and its "belt" of three superbright stars lying in a row. In a cosmic coincidence this week, the belt stars point straight to the comet.
A sky chart and a pair of binoculars should offer stargazers the best bet for hunting down the faint comet. Start observing at Orion's belt and sweep across it to Taurus. Stop when you come across a faint, fuzzy glowing ball—that's the comet. Remember to give your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness first.
From January 15 through 17, comet Lovejoy will pass to the right of the famous Pleiades cluster (also called Messier 45), a beautiful, naked-eye open cluster of stars that are also part of Taurus. Expect to see some eye-catching snapshots of this amazing encounter in coming days.
If you haven't had a chance yet to catch sight of Lovejoy, now is the time to try. Otherwise, you'll have to wait another 8,000 years before the comet visits our neck of the solar system once more.