Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy): A Christmas comet … and beyond

December 23, 2011 | By | 13 Comments

Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) continues to “Wow!” amateur astronomers who don’t mind getting up to look for the comet in the pre-dawn sky. This morning (23 December 2011 AEST time), the comet was reported as having a 16 degree tail – that is the same as 32 Full Moons lined up side by side! Experienced amateur astronomers have reported the comet as appearing like the light from a distant spotlight beaming high into the dawn sky – with the exception that the ‘beam’ of light is curved.

And the good news (fingers crossed) is that one comet watcher (J. Bortle) who has seen a number of sun-grazing comets is expecting that the tail should be visible for the next two weeks (with the proviso that the tail will slowly fade in brightness). That makes it a great ‘Christmas’ comet … and beyond. Dave Herald (Canberra Astronomical Society) has also pointed out that “…the comet (specifically, its nucleus) gets to its most southerly point on Jan 8, at declination –88 deg. That is, for several weeks after about New Years day the comet will be circumpolar, and therefore visible all night…“. Not bad for a comet that survived a 140, 000 kilometer close encounter with the Sun (confirming that it is a member of the Kreutz comet family).

(c) R. H. McNaught 21 December 2011. Image used with permission. http://msowww.anu.edu.au/~rmn/C2011W3.htm

The above image, taken by Robert H. McNaught 20km west of Siding Spring Observatory on the morning of Wednesday 21 December shows how spectacular the comet currently is. More of his images can be found here on his website. The brightness of the comet in real life is reported as being as bright as parts of the Milky Way – making it easy to view assuming you have clear skies and are away from bright city lights.

As of 24 December, the comet's tail has expanded to an estimated 20 degrees long (40 Moon widths) but has faded in surface brightness. 30 second exposure at 1,600 ASA using a DSLR (c) Paul Floyd 2011.

Clearly, if you live in the Southern hemisphere and want to see what may be a ‘once in a lifetime comet’, it is worth getting up in the morning to look for the comet. Unfortunately, with morning twilight occurring so early, this means you need to get up at around 3 am AEST (4 am AEDT) if you live in Canberra – which is when astronomical twilight starts (for maximum sky darkness). Use the below charts for the period Saturday 24 December through to Wednesday 28 December 2011 to assist you where to look regardless of where you live in Eastern Australia.

Wide angle chart showing location of Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) at 4 am AEST (5 am daylight savings time) on Saturday 24 December 2011. Chart produced for Canberra, Australia (but the chart will also be useful for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Image produced using Apple Ipad app Sky Safari Pro. Image (c) Southern Skies. Used with permission.

Above: Finder chart for Saturday 24 December 2011

Wide angle chart showing location of Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) at 4 am AEST (5 am daylight savings time) on Sunday 25 December 2011 (Christmas Day). Chart produced for Canberra, Australia (but the chart will also be useful for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Image produced using Apple Ipad app Sky Safari Pro. Image (c) Southern Skies. Used with permission.

Above: Finder chart for Sunday 25 December 2011

Wide angle chart showing location of Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) at 4 am AEST (5 am daylight savings time) on Monday 26 December 2011. Chart produced for Canberra, Australia (but the chart will also be useful for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Image produced using Apple Ipad app Sky Safari Pro. Image (c) Southern Skies. Used with permission.

Above: Finder chart for Monday 26 December 2011

Wide angle chart showing location of Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) at 4 am AEST (5 am daylight savings time) on Tuesday 27 December 2011. Chart produced for Canberra, Australia (but the chart will also be useful for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Image produced using Apple Ipad app Sky Safari Pro. Image (c) Southern Skies. Used with permission.

Above: Finder chart for Tuesday 27 December 2011

Wide angle chart showing location of Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy) at 4 am AEST (5 am daylight savings time) on Wednesday 28 December 2011. Chart produced for Canberra, Australia (but the chart will also be useful for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Image produced using Apple Ipad app Sky Safari Pro. Image (c) Southern Skies. Used with permission.

Above: Finder chart for Wednesday 28 December 2011

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About the Author (Author Profile)

This website is maintained by Paul Floyd. I am an amateur astronomer (and school teacher) with 21 years experience (as at 2011) in running a range of education and public astronomy outreach activities. As of January 2011, I have been providing astronomy information via the WWW for fourteen years.