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New comet's bold showing

Friday, 30th December, 2011

NEW LIGHT IN THE SKY: Comet Lovejoy as photographed by Trevor Barry this week. NEW LIGHT IN THE SKY: Comet Lovejoy as photographed by Trevor Barry this week.

The stars and planets combined to bring a little love and joy this Christmas, literally! Paula Doran caught up with Broken Hill’s resident astro-expert to find out more.

Astronomer Trevor Barry’s excitement this Christmas was impossible to contain.

Looking over the past four days’ worth of photos, the Broken Hill man with a passion for the stars and planets, an avid sky-watcher with decades of sightings to report, was almost tap dancing at the tale of his latest sighting.

Comet Lovejoy, the newest comet known to man, was spotted over the skies of the far west this festive season and Trevor was up in the wee small hours to witness it.

Days later, here I am, barely understanding the description of the significance of this vibrant comet in a black night sky in front of Trevor’s home computer as a slideshow of Lovejoy flips past. An image taken from the Tibooburra Road between 2am and 4:30am Christmas eve catches my eye; the white flash of a comet tail travelling towards a pink horizon.

“That’s nothing,” says Trevor, “have a look at the ones I took yesterday.”

While the comet-attraction does not make sense to some (what a build up Halley’s Comet was - it went up in the media brouhaha of excitement, then came down, down with a thud). I think I might have even pretended to have seen it just because everyone else said they saw it. 

But where was I? Oh, Lovejoy. Now Lovejoy seems to me to be the quiet achiever in comets.  It’s just appeared out of nowhere and my astro-tour guide Trevor says it’s one of the only comets he’s ever known that is totally visible to the naked eye.

“It’s very, very rare to see a comet with the naked eye,” he says, showing more photos taken over the past few days.  “Now this one was incredible, look at this. It just appeared in the sky. It looked like headlights in the night. Maybe it was Santa’s sleigh?”

My enthusiasm is catching on Comet Lovejoy. These vibrant strong dashes of matter blasting their way through the solar system, surviving a close circling through the corona of the sun and living to tell the tale. Now that’s a comet worth comment!

On the more learned side of this star watch, Comet Lovejoy is the third great comet since the October 1965 appearance of Ikeya-Seki and Comet McNaught in January and February of 2007.  Halley’s Comet was a great comet in 1910, but not in 1986 when it followed a more distant and thus fainter trajectory as seen from the earth.

Perhaps it’s the name, I wonder, intrigued as to why this comet has caught my attention?  A comet named with romance in mind I wonder?  

“Nah, it was discovered on November 27 this year by an Australian, Terry Lovejoy,” says Trevor, raining on my romance parade without even knowing it.

And for those of you who tie in the more medieval connection with the starts - a little bit of trivia to end our stargazing - historically it’s believed that the sighting of bright comets is associated with the death of tyrants and kings. Fairly interesting if you think of Kim Jong-il.

Comet Lovejoy will be visible for a few more days. Trevor suggests between 2:30am and 4:30am as prime times to spot it. 

“It’s directly below the Southern Cross. Look below towards the horizon and you’ll see it,” he says.

As the comet continues its travels it will begin to break up, so perhaps pack the binoculars to guarantee a sighting.

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