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Gazing at Comet Lulin

February 4th, 2009 · 7 Comments · Personal

Hello fellow stargazers. If you’re a backyard astronomy buff like myself who likes to look at the heavens every now and again, you may find this post interesting. I have to admit I haven’t done a whole lot of stargazing of late, mainly only when cool stuff comes around like eclipses or meteor showers or… comets. Comets are a rare-enough occurrence in the night sky that going through hoops to see one is worth the while. I’ve witnessed a small handful of comets in my time, the most memorable of course would be Comet Hyakutake, which skimmed by us in 1996. I still remember being on Hilton Head Is. in South Carolina where my family used to own a condo and me and my Dad strolled down to the beach and there was the comet, bright and visible to the naked eye in the east rising out of the ocean. Of course I could see it from home as well, despite all the urban light pollution, but down on the island it was especially brilliant. Of course then Comet Hale-Bopp came along the next year and stole the thunder but I enjoyed Hyakutake more, personally.

While the newest arrival, Comet Lulin, isn’t expected to be anything as spectacular as my two previous examples, it is potentially unique in being a first-run comet that’s never orbited past the sun before. As the article I linked to states, there’s no historical data for what will happen as the comet approaches the sun and starts to be affected by the solar wind particles. In other words, this could be interesting.

How to See It

So the comet should be visible with a good pair of binoculars or an amateur telescope at this time, so how do you find it? It’s pretty simple actually thanks to the wonderful technology that exists today. For example if you have a telescope with a motorized mount you can simply program in the location and point the telescope right at the comet. If you don’t then the process is a bit longer but just as easy.

Step 1. First you have to be able to find out where the comet is for a given day, since we can’t just look up and see it yet. Sky and Telescope have PDF guides for you to download for various date ranges that specify the location of the comet for various days during that range and show the track of the comet across the night sky through constellations.

Step 2. Now you have to figure out where in your night sky to look for the comet. Depending on your location the time in which you’ll be able to see the comet and where will vary. Let’s determine, via latitute and longitude, where you are specifically on the Earth. If you have a GPS device or some other simple means of pulling down your lat/long coordinates that’s cool. I have one too but I still prefer to use Google Earth for this. Open Earth and zoom in to your house. Take your cursor and hover it over the spot in your yard where you generally like to setup your telescope or stand for stargazing with binoculars. At the bottom of the screen you’ll see the exact latitude and longitude coordinates as well as the elevation. Take note of these.

Step 3. In order to see what your night sky will look like at any given time, we can use an awesome freeware open source application called Stellarium. Download and install Stellarium. When you run it, press F6 to bring up the Location window. Here’s where you’ll enter in your location data drawn from Google Earth (or wherever you got it). Give your location a name (I chose “Home”), set your country, click the “Add to list” button and then check the “Use as default” box so that you’re here every time you start Stellarium. Now pop up the Date/Time window (F5) and check that it’s set properly. You can also look at the various configuration windows (F4, F2) to play around with some settings if you want. (For example I like using Perspective view)

Step 4. Okay it’s time to find our comet! Open the PDF file for the current date range. Right now that would be 1/1 – 2/14. We see that for today (2/4), the comet is somewhere in the constellation Libra. Press F3 in Stellarium to open the Search window and type in Libra then hit Enter. You’ll see your view in Stellarium change as it centers on the Libra constellation, which may be in the ground! If that’s the case it’s simply not risen yet, so lets press L a few times to advance the clock at an increasing rate until we see it rise up in the sky (the camera will remain locked on). Press K once to return to normal speed. Take note of the time displayed at the bottom of the screen as this is your local time period for viewing the comet. Now let’s get some reference, as the constellation lines in Stellarium don’t exactly match that of the PDF document. We see that the comet is near a star Alpha2, so lets click on one of the stars in the top of the Libra constellation with our mouse cursor. When you select an object in Stellarium all its data is displayed in the upper-left corner, including its astronomical symbol. Clicking on the right-most star will bring up a2 Lib, the star that resides next to Comet Lulin.

Gaze away!

Following the last step at any time will help you track the comet as it progresses across the night sky over the coming weeks and grows brighter. How bright remains to be seen. Astronomers aren’t expecting much but if it is indeed a new comet then we could be surprised, so keep a look out! If you’re not able to see the comet yet, then at least you can use Stellarium to find other interesting objects to point your lens at 🙂

If any of you see the comet, take pictures, etc, leave me a link in the comments! There isn’t a cloud in the sky right now and hopefully it will stay that way for me tonight so I can take my first look towards the heavens in an attempt to spot it with some binocs. I took down my father’s old refractive telescope (the ones with a long tube) from the attic yesterday but it seems some moisture managed to sneak in (most likely through the eyepiece) and the main lens is a bit smudgy on the inside as a result so I don’t know if it is useable anymore. Either way, I’ll post later if I see it!

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