I just spotted Comet Lulin

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2009 11:30 pm

I went outside just now (11:00 p.m.) to check for something, and saw a big old hole in the clouds almost perfectly centered in Saturn… and Comet Lulin! So I grabbed my binoculars and took a look.

Wow! It’s huge! I estimate its size through my 15×70 binoculars at about 1/3 – 1/2 a degree, or roughly the size of the full Moon on the sky. It’s pretty bright, though it’s so spread out it’s probably very difficult to see naked eye except from dark sites (though I may be off there; I was only seeing 3rd magnitude stars due to light pollution and clouds). The tail was not obvious exactly, but I could see this wasn’t just a ball; it was elongated in an east/west direction. Also, the comet’s green color was pretty obvious. It’s an eerie faint green, like a planetary nebula (for those of you who have seen them through telescopes). In fact, they’re both green for roughly the same reason: nebulae are green due to fluorescing oxygen, and the comet from fluorescing molecules of carbon and CN (a radical that may come from hydrogen cyanide that is broken down by UV sunlight).

From my location and time (Boulder Colorado at 11:00 p.m. local time) it was "below and to the right" of Saturn. Your mileage may vary with your own location and time, and especially date as the comet is zipping along right now. Check Sky and Telescope for updates on its position.

All in all, a very spectacular sight, and one that I think will photograph well. Give it a shot!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (73)

  1. hale-bopp

    I got it earlier tonight also…even showed up on a 20 second exposure with a Canon Digital Rebel with a standard 18-55mm zoon lens…I did bump the ISO up to 1600 to get it.

  2. eddie

    The size of the full moon? I just spotted it naked eye with crystal clear skies here in South Georgia, but I’ll need to look again. It’s pretty small and dim without visual aid.

    Guess I’ll lug the camera and tripod out there. Thx for the info, Phil and Hale-Bopp. Will post any decent results here.

  3. I spotted it as well. Took some shots just before midnight Eastern time. It was below and to the left of Saturn and looked pretty good through binoculars.

    The shots I got aren’t that great, but still pretty cool considering they are the first I’ve ever taken of a comet!

  4. correction, it was “below and to the right” for me as well (can’t seem to tell my left from my right sometimes).

    I’m going to find some darker skies tomorrow night. It wasn’t too bad where I was, but I can do much better by driving about 30 minutes.

  5. SpyderHawke

    I don’t know how good my binoculars are but I think I saw it. At least, it got me to drag out my cheap telescope and see Saturn for the first time. That was thrilling…now to get a much better scope.

  6. SpyderHawke

    I should add that I was viewing it within the Tucson city limits with my neighbor’s lights on, so I think I did a decent job. Especially considering I can usually only find both Ursa’s and Orion.

  7. Doug

    Thanks for the update. It prompted me to go outside and look and lo and behold the clouds had parted around Saturn here (San Jose,C A) as well. Could barely spot it with 9×25 binoculars, but it was easy enough to see with a 4.5” reflector. It was further away from Saturn than I was expecting. Not quite as bright or big as Holmes was last year, but nice.

  8. Naomi

    Looks like it’s rising at about 9 PM my time. Cool – there’s a bunch of buildings to the east where I am, so I’ll pop on out at about ten to try and get a look. Hope there’s not too much cloud cover!

  9. Hungarian

    Phil, I’ve just came across the news on the Greates Death From the Sky:

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/20feb_extremegrb.htm?list176638

    (unrelated to this post)

  10. I photographed it tonight….

    http://somecanadianskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/02/le-petit-steve.html

    I’ll head out again when I get some more work done.

  11. Ooh, got excited. Googled star maps. Worked out which direction to look. Went outside. Looked up. Completely overcast in Sydney. D’oh.

  12. Hungarian

    Oh, and I also found this nice case of pareidolia, todays apod:

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/

    This is definietly the angry ghost of Albert Einstein.

    (still unrelated)

  13. RawheaD

    I forget if these things work here:

    Comet Lulin (C/2007 N3)  (055/365)

  14. RawheaD

    Ah, yes it did ;-) Very faint in Boston, definitely not naked eye. Not having a binoc, and not having the patience to set up my Megrez 90 on a below freezing night, I just ran out with a DSLR, 50mm f1.4 camera, pointed in the general direction, and shot. My first comet of 2009, yay!

  15. Darth Robo

    But it’s cloudy and raining!

    :(

    (grumble english weather grumble grumble)

  16. I can also see a large cloud like object…

    Unfortunately, its the blanket of unbroken cloud that’s completely covering the sky. :(

  17. Congrats! Had a lucky instance here too around midnight, when short clearings appeared. In the ETX-70 (small 7 cm refractor) at 14x it was a fuzzy ball with a tail in NW-SE direction. Very easy to find, so close to Saturn.

    I shot a few pictures: the stack of that can be seen on my blog (click my name to get there).

  18. Valis

    Any chance of seeing it in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa)? The info given on SkyandTelescope seems to be for the Northern Hemisphere only. Although it’s cloudy and rainy here as well ;-) Hopefully the sky will clear up by tonight though.

  19. Valis

    Shane Says:
    February 24th, 2009 at 2:36 am

    Ooh, got excited. Googled star maps. Worked out which direction to look. Went outside. Looked up. Completely overcast in Sydney

    Ah, should’ve read the comments first ;-)

  20. MadScientist

    Comets *must* be bad luck – it looks like the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed. :( It wasn’t an aborted launch, but it looks like the fairings didn’t separate as they should have and the bird might be rendered useless. Blame the comet – it must have caused the previous satellite collision as well. I hope those guys built a spare bird … and just last week I was talking to an astronomer about how launches *do* fail for any number of reasons and the cheapest insurance is to build a spare while building the one for launch.

  21. MadScientist

    @Valis: If the comet is near Saturn, then you should see it if Saturn is above your horizon. Of course a comet can appear to move a fair bit between evenings and the strange motion of planets don’t make things easier … but in general, whether the map was for N or S doesn’t really matter – what matters is that the reference objects (stars, planets, constellations) are visible to you.

  22. AstroProf

    Well, from the west side of Greensboro, NC, it took us about an hour to find it in a 16″ telescope. In the end, we imported the orbital elements from Harvard’s CfA into our telescope control software to get the current celestial position. Random-walking based on the finding charts was not productive. :-) Couldn’t see any elongation at all, but there was a definite smudge. It looked best with an image-enhancing eyepiece. If it was really the size of the moon, though, we would have missed most of it with the smaller field of view. I think I saw the elongation outside with a pair of binoculars, but my students found the comet itself a bit anti-climactic. I enjoyed it, though. :-)

  23. Valis

    @Madscientist: Thanks, will check it out tonight. If the clouds clear up ;-)

  24. Valis

    Ps. Was getting confused with an eclipse :-)

  25. StevoR

    Start with the triangle of stars near the “sickle” asterism in Leo – on the zodiac or ecliptic so should be viewable in most places although “upside down” for some! ;-)

    This “back half of Leo triangle” is composed of Denebola or Beta Leonis (“lion’s tail”), Chertan or Theta (?) Leonis and Zosma or Delta Leonis (after which my cat is named! :-) )

    Denebola is the one furthest from Regulus, Chertan is on the same line as Regulus (The brightest star in the Sickle and constellation overall) Zosma is the one in line with the curve of the “sickle” or “Question mark” asterism. (Zosma is also the one sitting on my chair purring rightnow but that’s anotherZosma & almost certainly not visible to any of you!!
    ;-) )

    Saturn will be roughly pointed to by Zosma and Chertan and brighter than all stars in the constellation. Comet Lulin will be a green mist (~ in the sky! Shades of the War of the Worlds!) next to Saturn.

    Here in Adelaide its rising now, nice darkish skies, trees on the horizon & still too low for me though. But in a little while .. I’ll be oustide with my binocs! :-D

    ***

    PS. Trivial fact(s) for the night : Regulus (Alpha Leonis) at the top of the “sickle” is the nearest B type star to our Sun a blue dwarf (B7 V) some seventy eight lightyears away! It is also extremely flattened by its super-fast rotation into a shape described as pumpkin or bullet-like & has red dwarf and white companion stars.

  26. I went outside a few hours before that (about 10:30 Eastern) with a pair of binoculars and a scrap of paper containing a hastily sketched starchart scribbled on the back of a receipt. (Ursa Major, Leo, Saturn, X marks the spot.) I had to walk down the street a bit to get clear of the trees. Managed to locate Saturn and saw a greenish smudge to the right of that. Got on the phone to call a friend of mine (probably the only one who’d “get it”) but got her voicemail. So, yeah, standing in the middle of a suburban street late at night with binoculars, talking on the phone. I’m sure that didn’t make the neighbors nervous at all. :D

  27. Flood

    I bet you forgot what you went out to check for in the first place.

  28. Grand Lunar

    It seems to be too light polluted around my place to see the comet.

  29. Spiv

    woke up very early and got a glimpse. First greenie I’ve ever seen!

  30. DenverAstro

    @Astroprof: The comet is a pretty large diffuse object by all accounts. I haven’t seen it yet myself. Seems to me that using a 16″ scope (truss dob?) to view it is like shooting a mouse with an elephant gun. I could be wrong here but it seems like it would work better with a wider angle, shorter focal length? I don’t know, I’m just guessing.

    @Marco: “In the ETX-70 (small 7 cm refractor) at 14x it was a fuzzy ball” Just a little nit but a Meade ETX is a Maksutov-Cassigrain which is a reflector, not a refractor. No biggie, I’m just a little anal about telescopes, I love them. One of my scopes is an ETX-125

  31. DrFlimmer

    Clouds are supposed to be very beautiful objects; large molecular clouds and that sort of things.

    But there is one catagory of clouds that I really, say, dislike. Let me call them NEC… Near Earth Clouds. There are just too much of them over Germany….

  32. Savino

    Too faint here in my town in Brazil. I can spot it with my 200mm newtonian, but with a 16mm eyepiece max! More than that and I cant get enough light!

  33. callmeox

    I live in light polluted suburbia, but I can now make the trek to this place to check out the sights. A neat Astronomy initiative in Northeast Ohio:

    http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/02/2_million_geauga_park_would_pr.html

  34. TPO

    Thanks for the reminder and the link. I’ll be breaking out the tely tonight:-)

  35. Steve-0

    Sweet, I’m up in Keystone for the week and will try to find it before we leave. It snowed too much last night to see it, but I’m not complaining.

  36. I bagged it last night in 10×50 binos. It was -11C and windy here, so I took the unusual step of observing through a window from the comfort of my living room.

  37. Daniel J. Andrews

    Was able to spot it last night through binoculars and through an 80 mm (30x) spotting scope. Temps were -25 C and dropping so I wasn’t about to break out the 8″ SC.

    MadScientist…when you refer to the “spare bird” are you talking about the launch rocket or the OCO itself? One news report (which are never unreliable :) ) said the OCO was too heavy for the rocket, couplings failed to disengage, and both crashed into the ocean. Wouldn’t that effectively destroy the OCO? I can’t imagine them having a spare OCO? Am I wrong?

  38. I had been looking for it with binoculars but finally gave up. The sky here is very heavily light polluted. However, I managed to get it in the telescope. It was pretty washed out by the light pollution, so the students were rather unimpressed. But, it really is huge. It looked to easily be half a degree across, and likely bigger. I imagine that it would look spectacular under dark skies. I’m going to get a chance to see it from darker skies in a few days (weather permitting).

  39. I was going to go out last night and try and look for it, but while it wasn’t exactly cloudy, there was indications of a blanket of haze which was diffusing the stars to where I could barely pick ou Regulus from my driveway. I can usually pick up all the major stars of Leo.

    Since my binocs has long been stolen from my car and I would have had to go buy a pair I just said heck with it. :(

    I’ve been looking for a replacement set of atronomical binocs in the 80-100mm range. Any suggestions?

  40. @ DenverAstro:
    Sorry, but the ETX-70 is, unlike the ETX-125, a refractor, not a Maksutov-Cassegrain!

  41. Skipster

    I set up my go to telescope last night around 8:30pm. I located Saturn and brought the scope a little bit down and to the left of Saturn. I spotted Lulin with it’s arched tail and bluish green color. I was gifted to see the flares change. I could actually see the point of the comet which was blue in color. Awesome look. tonight I am hooking my camera to the scope and hoping for clear skies to get a good picture. I’ll then post it so everyone can see what I have viewed.

  42. Skipster

    StevoR Says:
    February 24th, 2009 at 5:33 am
    Start with the triangle of stars near the “sickle” asterism in Leo

    Seveo. Are you refering to Libra which has the triangle stars. There are 2 bright stars in the triangle and one dim star on the left point. The lines from the traiangle side points, each go up to another star and angle out to another star. A lot of people get Leo and Libra confused. Not sure what you were refering to, as Lulin is close to Libra constellation.

  43. «bønez_brigade»

    Arrrg! By the time I finished collimating the mirrors in my cheap scope, the damn clouds had rolled in; and, unfortunately, they’re here to stay for the week. Jeez, I’ve got to get out of the Deep South…

  44. Corey

    Phil,

    I was actually at Sommers-Bausch at CU Boulder, helping out with a little event for a couple classes that wanted us to have our ‘scopes running for the event. We took plenty of pictures when the clouds weren’t ruining our fun >:( but haven’t really reduced them much yet. Got some great movies of it moving through the sky though; it was really booking!

  45. Gary Ansorge

    Lulin seems a good excuse to drag the 8 incher out to my yard, if the sky remains clear tonight. Hope the temps remain tolerable,,,

    GAry 7

  46. ND

    Rawhead,

    What dslr camera do you have? 50mm f1.4, nice lens :) what was the exposure time? I’m planning going for a picture or two tonight with a nikon d60 from Concord MA.

  47. RawheaD

    @ ND

    You can click on the pic to jump to my Flickr stream, where all the data are listed (and increase my view count, lol). However, if you want it here, there they are:

    Pentax K20D + Asahi Opt. Co., Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4
    Shot wide open, ISO1600, 6s.

    You probably will have much better luck in Concord than Brookline. Good luck :-))

  48. ND

    Ah yes brookline. yeah. Fenway isn’t far away. Specially if you’re an astronomy student at Boston University :)

  49. JB of Brisbane

    So with a modest 70x magnification, Comet Lulin should appear as large as the moon to the naked eye?

    You know what sort of confusion a statement like that can cause.

  50. Baffling! I was out at the same time (one time zone to the west) with a crystal-clear view of Saturn and I saw no trace of Lulin whatsoever. I know this comet’s moving fast, but not *that* fast. I am really that bad at locating celestial objects?

  51. RawheaD

    @ND

    Ah. So we share a building. I’m an archaeology grad meself ;-)

  52. ND

    RawheaD,

    Well I graduated in ’96. But I know where the arch. dept is :). One time I was observing on the roof for class and the music store across the street was having their grand opening, with searchlights flooding the sky, just to frustrate us students more :)

  53. @Joseph: I was a bit confused when I came home tonight as well. According to the .pdf chart on the S & T site, it should be right below Saturn tonight (2/24), but the chart embedded in the article has it up and to the right of Saturn; which is where I found it. The ephemeris must have been updated in the time since the .pdf was published. The only other objects in that area are M95, 96 and 105, all mag. 9+ galaxies, which were out of reach of my skies and my cheap 10X50 binoculars. There was also observable motion within the half hour or so that I was observing. I tried to take some shots with my point & shoot digital, but I was unable to pick it up with the max exposure it had, 15 seconds.

  54. Okay, click on my name for reference to Regulus via Kaler’s Stars website -from there you can find heaps more on the other stars of Leo and more …

    Went out last night and spotted Comet Lulin -with bothbinocs and unaided eyesight! :-)

    Reminded me a bit of a nebula, a misty patch and yeah, it definitely had a tinge of verdant eerie beautiful green to it! 8)

    @ Skipster saying on Feb 24th, ’09 at 10:30 am :

    StevoR Says: “Start with the triangle of stars near the “sickle” asterism in Leo.”

    Stevo. Are you refering to Libra which has the triangle stars? There are 2 bright stars in the triangle and one dim star on the left point. The lines from the traiangle side points, each go up to another star and angle out to another star. A lot of people get Leo and Libra confused. Not sure what you were refering to, as Lulin is close to Libra constellation.”

    No. I definitely meant Leo.

    There are a lot of triangles in the sky (Triangulum and Triangulum Australis to name two triangular constellations, plus the winterand summertriangle asterisms) and this particular triangle referred to was the three stars making up the back half of the celestial “lion”.

    Libra is what used to be the claws of Scorpius positioned between Virgo and Scorpius. Libra has a trangle of stars too but NOT the one I was meaning. The bright stars of Libra incidentally are named Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae), Zubeneschmali (Beta Librae) and Zubenelakrab! (Gamma Librae.) I kid you not.

    Comet Lulin is definitely located in Leo
    (at least for now) alongside Saturn. Check the map the BA linked to here.

  55. MadScientist

    @Daniel: spare bird is a spare OCO; rockets are comparatively cheap and plentiful. I wouldn’t believe reports that the OCO was ‘too heavy’ – the space people are extremely weight-conscious and it would be extraordinary (though I wouldn’t claim impossible) to choose too small a rocket to deliver the payload. Since the fairings didn’t fall away as planned, even if the satellite were to fire its boosters it wouldn’t get into the right orbit anyway. I don’t know why everything fell to ground; for all I know the ground control people decided the mission was lost and sent instructions for the satellite to fire its (comparatively tiny) rockets to force it back down; another possibility is that it was in a low enough orbit that drag slowed it down quickly – but I find that particular scenario harder to believe.

  56. Bob

    @JB: The OP says “15×70″ binocs which should mean 15x magnification.

  57. «bønez_brigade»

    Well, the clouds cleared tonight for a bit, and the comet was finally spotted. Huzzah!

  58. Comet Lulin features on Wikipedia today.

    Click on my name above to visit the comet Lulin wikipedia page.

  59. DrFlimmer

    That’s cool: ApoD has linked to this post, today.

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap090225.html

    It’s the 4th link in the text….

    The sad part is that the skies are still overcast in Germany. And rain is promised for the next few nights and days – I am so happy :(

  60. I don’t have the best equipment, but I was able to capture it with my DSLR. The green definitely pops out.

    Comet Lulin

  61. den

    The greenish glow is not due to CN, which bands are in the near UV (3883 and 4216 Angstrom). They are most likely from C2, which has a couple of bands between 4000-6000 Angstrom.

    green (wikipedia): 490-560 nm

  62. I know nothing about astronomy, but tonight around 7 pm as I was walking home I saw an object that looked like a bright star with a large halo–about the size of a full moon and roughly round in shape–around it. I tried looking at sky maps online, but as far as I can tell this object was nowhere near Saturn. It was roughly in a south to southwest direction, maybe 30-35 degrees above the horizon and it has moved a bit more westerly in the past half hour. The halo looks grayish, as if the star were shining through a cloud. I would say the color of the object was yellowish white. I’ve never seen anything like this, so I thought maybe this was a comet, and when I got on the Internet I saw that there is currently a comet in the sky, but this doesn’t seem to meet the description or the pictures online of a greenish object with two tales. Can anyone tell me what this is? Thanks.

  63. Ed Bride

    Easy naked-eye object here in western Massachusetts. If you can see any of Orion’s stars, you can probably spot the comet…nearer Saturn, of course.

  64. Nate Paradiso

    I’m in Boulder Colorado, and having trouble locating Saturn. It’s overcast now but I want to find the comet some time tonight or tomorrow night. Anyone know where to locate Saturn?

  65. Robert

    I believe I saw it with the naked eye here in Lake Louise, AB. It’s a greenish-grayish streak/blur (looking off to the side helps bring it out). Without any magnification, it’s actually quite large – in my uneducated opinion, the streak from top to bottom even bigger than a full moon.

  66. «bønez_brigade»

    Leo and Robert, you two must be in an _extremely_ dark location — or maybe you were seeing the Orion Nebula? I’m located in a decently dark-skied, well, location, and I need binoculars to find it.

    Keep updated with the, well, updates over at spaceweather.com. They link to sky maps that assist in locating Lulin (and its short-lived celestial companions). Here’s tonight’s map:
    http://spaceweather.com/images2009/27feb09/skymap_north_lulin2.gif

    Also, plug in your location over at heavens-above.com to get smacked with more info on your, well, location, than you can possibly see in one night (satellites, comets, sky maps, etc.)

    Nate, Saturn is in the East after sunset. Follow my previous directions for info on cruising the sky in your location.

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