Thursday, December 5, 2013

Comet Lovejoy on a Steamy December Night

Comet Lovejoy (c) John Ashley
Left to right: Chief Mountain, Comet Lovejoy, meteor smoke trail
Somehow I overlooked the forecast for record cold when I lined out the angles and cloud cover for a chance to see Comet Lovejoy setting over Chief Mountain. It was rather crisp (-15F/-26C) for photographing, and a little steam from the Saint Mary River (out of view in foreground) provided a wispy fog layer to shoot through. This was yesterday evening, and the lights of downtown Babb glowed in holiday shades of green and orange.

I had just sort of pointed my camera/tripod north and set the initial focus without looking through the lens, and was still fiddling with frozen thumbs when I caught sight of the meteor streaking in. I reached over and pressed the shutter only by instinct. At this point, I hadn't even had a chance to locate the comet with my binoculars, but my earlier calculations told me where it was supposed to be. Cross your fingers old fella'.

It almost never happens to me, but this time I got lucky. Comet Lovejoy rises parallel to the meteor's cursive smoke trail, and both point towards the majestic mountain. Try as I might, this is the closest alignment with Chief Mountain that I can manage without skiing miles into the backcountry and spending a few below-zero nights waiting for the mountain clouds to cooperate.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) was only discovered a few months ago, on September 7th, and it's already passed by our little planet on its way towards a Christmas day perihelion with our neighborhood star, when it will loop around roughly 75.4 million miles from the sun. It should be somewhat visible through December, more or less, but it leaves us farther behind with each passing day. Don't worry, though, it'll be back in roughly 7,000 years.