Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Haven’t Seen Comet Lulin Yet

That’s a picture of Comet Lulin that I got from Daniel Fischer’s astronomy blog.

These days of urban sprawl and bright lights it’s pretty unusual for a comet to be visible to city dwellers or suburbanites. In my whole life I’ve only seen two. I saw Comet Hyakutake in 1996 and I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Right now Comet Lulin is sweeping from Virgo to Leo and Comet Lulin may become bright enough for those of us who live under chronically bad skies to see.

Sky & Telescope: Catch Winter's Comet Lulin

There are good things and bad things about Comet Lulin. (The name ‘Lulin’ comes from the observatory that discovered the comet.)

The best thing about Comet Lulin is that if it brightens up a little bit it should be very easy to find.

Virgo contains one bright star, Spica. Although there are no easy-to-see patterns in Virgo, Spica is visible even in bad skies. Right now Spica clears the horizon clutter around my house about midnight. By two or three in the morning Spica is reasonably high in the south and in good position for observing.

Over the next week—Comet Lulin should reach its brightest around February 24—Comet Lulin will move from just north of Spica to just south of Saturn. Saturn is reasonably bright right now in eastern Leo. With Spica and Saturn to mark the sky, finding Comet Lulin is just a question of sweeping between the two bright objects with a pair of binoculars.

So far I’ve looked three times.

Saturday night I stayed up late and checked Spica when Spica was near the horizon. That’s a pretty bad time because the atmosphere is very thick near the horizon. But I was tired. I checked with binoculars and my telescope and didn’t see Comet Lulin.

Sunday night I went to bed early and got up early Monday ‘morning.’ Spica was high in the south and again I checked with binoculars and my telescope but I didn’t see Comet Lulin. Although Spica was high in the south—which should have been the best time for observations—the sky was fairly washed out from moonlight because the Moon was only about twenty or thirty degrees east of Spica.

I went out again early this morning but the sky was cloudy.

Comets are unpredictable and I’m hoping Comet Lulin undergoes some serious flaring and brightens by a magnitude or more than expected.

The bad thing about Comet Lulin is that early reports I’ve seen say the comet appears almost asteroid-like and displays very little halo, very little of the extended glow you expect to see in a comet. So I’ve been studying finder charts trying to familiarize myself with the field stars around Spica and Saturn so that if the comet appears as something like a point-source I will still recognize it as something out-of-place.

Comets are cool—temporary visitors to the inner system from the always interesting outer system. And, historically, comets have been regarded as omens, for better and worse.

I could use a good omen right around now. (More on that tomorrow.)

I will keep looking.

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