Naked eye comet graces the skies

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2009 1:18 pm

A fairly bright comet is passing through the neighborhood right now: C/2007 N3 (Lulin), or just Lulin to its friends. I have not yet seen it (busy busy) but I plan to soon: over the next few days it’s passing very close to the position of Saturn in the sky, making it a very easy target to spot. Take a look at a map of Lulin’s position for tonight courtesy Jodrell Bank. Sky and Telescope also has PDF maps of the comet position for various dates.

Its position near Saturn in Leo means it’s up practically all night right now; it rises around sunset, so look East for it (check the map links above for details). With binoculars it should be pretty easy to find; its brightness is hovering just above naked-eye visibility, so it’ll be an obvious fuzzy ball near Saturn. Just sweep around and I bet you’ll find it.

And for you astrophotographers, it’s a piece of cake. Just take a camera, plop it on a tripod, aim it near Saturn, and take a few-seconds-long exposure. Take as long an exposure as you can (30 seconds is usually about as far as you can push it in reasonably light-polluted skies), but it may show up in shorter shots too. Pictures are turning up everywhere (do a Google image search!), so you should try your hand at it too. I’ve taken some pretty awesome sky shots with just my wee digital camera. It’s really not all that hard.

As for me and the new comet, of course this is the first cloudy day we’ve had in weeks, so I’ll just have to wait. Impatiently.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (38)

  1. Jess Tauber

    I saw it last night, just a little to the southeast of Saturn, at the left end of an elliptically shaped star string. Wish I had a shot of it.

    Jess Tauber

  2. Astronomynut

    I was able to get clear skies last night and took a peek at it through my 20X70 binoculars. (way too cold to drag out the 17.5″ dob) It’s plenty bright enough for them, but might be tough in smaller bino’s. As bright as it was though, with a reference point like Saturn to look at, ought to be a piece of cake.


    Phil Plait: “As for me and the new comet, of course this is the first cloudy day we’ve had in weeks,…”

    Here in London, U.K., whenever the Sun/Moon does eventually appear in the sky, people think it’s a U.F.O. — “Hey, WTF is that thing …?!”

  4. JScarry

    A while back you did a post on why there are no green stars and left the article with

    Note: this is not the end of the story. There are green objects in space, and some stars do appear green… but that’s for another post, coming soon. Promise.

    So this would be a good time to explain why the comet is green.

  5. You would be surprised at how MUCH light pollution we have here. Tried looking for it; nothing…

  6. BJN

    We had a clear sky here a few days ago but I gave up looking for it to clear the houses nearby at around 1:00 a.m. It may have been up, but the city lights may have been too much with the comet low in the sky.

    I’ll put in a plug for an iPhone app that is one of two astronomy chart apps I’ve purchased. “Distant Suns” has has a recent update that adds a comet graphic for tracking comet Lulin, which is cool since this comet isn’t in the ephemera in the other star chart app “Starmap” that I’m using. With a forecast of clouds for this week, I’ll probably miss the comet’s close approach but with “Distant Suns” and my phone, I’ll be able to find out when and where to view it when it’s clear.

  7. SkepGeek

    Too bad I don’t have my Galileoscope yet. :-)

  8. DrFlimmer

    Light pollution would be a struggle, but the damn clouds are taking all the stars away here in Germany. And the weather is not going to become better in the next days. Damn it!

  9. Michelle

    It’s terribly cloudy this week. It’s just my luck.

  10. Hot damn. A clear night. Finally something to break out the new telescope on.

  11. Brian

    The Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Georgia, is again webcasting the comet live tonight (2/23/09) from about 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. E.S.T., as seen through the Columbus State University observatory’s 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Last night’s webcast was impressive!

    They also have a short, time-lapse video of the comet passing the star GSC 274:862 on the same page:

    (I regularly visit the website at and came across the link there.)

  12. Tonight’s approach to Saturn is actually BAD for Lulin as I noted a few minutes ago from Tenerife: Only when I left the planet’s bright light out of the field of view of my 11×70 binoculars, Lulin’s full glory (huge elliptical coma, several degrees of faint narrow dust anti-tail) became evident. And take your time: good dark adaptation (several minutes at least) is of the essence!

    By the way, the best – color – image of the comet I’ve seen so far is this one from two nights ago. But don’t expect anything like that with your own eyes, regardless of the instrument …

  13. Cloudy here in MN for the next week or so…. :-(

  14. Greg in Austin


    Great photo of Lulin from the Central Texas Astronomical Society Meyer Observatory!

    About that “anti-tail,” is that caused by dust particles moving ahead of the comet along the sun’s magnetic field lines?

    Or are they charged electrons traveling along electric currents? Those electric currents could be what pulls the comet to the sun, instead of gravity! 😉


  15. Mike

    Good thing I got out and imaged it a couple nights ago – solid clouds here now. I’m still bummed though, because I did get some good shots, I never did observe it visually. Looks like I may not get the chance, clouds predicted for days and days.

    If you DO have clear skies though, it’s worth the trip outside with a pair of binos.

  16. IVAN3MAN

    Q: Why is comet Lulin green?
    A: The green colour arises when ionized cyanogen (CN — a poisonous gas found in many comets) and diatomic carbon (C2). Both substances glow green when illuminated by sunlight in the near-vacuum of space.

    P.S. That is not meant to be a joke.

  17. IVAN3MAN

    Err… that should read: “The green colour arises from…”

  18. Sman

    It was an easy bino(10x50s) target last night in a large urban area with heavy light pollution.

  19. BethK

    It was easy enough to pick out last night with my 20×80 binoculars. But I didn’t think it was worth it. Not with the wind and cold. I thought I had pretty dark skies and my eyes were night-adjusted, but I wasn’t seeing much tail. I had also seen it when it appeared closer to Spica. It’s easier to find now. I still have memories of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp and Holmes. I missed McNaught.

  20. Kevin

    Finally had clear skies, and went out and looked.

    Meh. I’ve seen better. The only positive thing I can say is it was the 53rd comet I’ve observed.

    I agree with BethK: I remember Hyakutake, Hale-Bopp and Holmes.

  21. BethK

    But I’ll admit that I just looked again tonight. I can see tails in both directions. And I can get Saturn and the comet in the same field of view. I don’t think it’s naked eye here, but I’m inside. The wind chill is 9F.

    Three cheers for skylights so I can stargaze through my ceiling.

  22. StevoR

    McNaught was the best comet I’ve seen in my life.

    Next best was Hyakutake then Hale-Bopp.

    I haven’ yet seen comet Lulin but I’m looking forward to doing so hopefully tonight – any chance of it brightening further? 😉

  23. Easily spotted in 10x50s from lovely Pasadena-in-the-Smog, California. Going to try the behemoth tomorrow night, if I can get motivated to drag it – and my lazy butt – out of the house.

  24. Matt

    I have just got back in from viewing, also in Pasadena. I found it first with 16×50 binoculars, then with a low powered telescope. Neither gave me any detail at all, just the thrill of finding it!!

  25. Andrew

    Greg – the anti-tail is a projection effect. The comet has two tails – a straight ion tail which is pushed directly away from the Sun by the solar wind, and a curved dust tail composed of small particles with their own orbits around the Sun (curved because it trails after the comet in its orbit and is also pushed out to a lesser extent by the solar wind). The anti-tail is part of the curved dust trail which, as seen from the Earth, appears to be ahead of the comet.

    See, for example, and

    I have been waiting for a clear night for a few days now :(

  26. Sman

    BethK wrote:

    I still have memories of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp and Holmes. I missed McNaught.

    Where is the love for Schassmann-Wachmann 3? The multiple components made it one of my favorites… too, there was the night that it “passed” the Ring Nebula.

  27. Mark Lancaster

    I used the S&T chart to find Lulin on the evening of 2/22. Just barely visible, a hint of indistinctly shaped fuzz, in my Celestron 10×50 binos, under light-polluted Baltimore, MD suburban skies. Missed the opportunity last night, will try again tonight and hope for better. I’ll use the tripod this time!

  28. JM

    While it’s usually great to view these things, this is not a “naked eye” object, unless you happen to be an Owl.

    Here in Big Island, Hawaii, Comet was an easy find via 7×50 Bio’s (night temp was 67F). However, Comet Holmes was much more interesting and brighter. Even in my 4″ refractor, Comet Lulin did not have a “hey, there’s a comet” effect. Good thing I observed it before waking my wife to “see the comet”. LOL. Glad astrophotographers have been showing a better view of this Comet.

    Amazing how much hype over a 5 mag object. Had a look ahead to Comet Halley’s next passage. It will pass very close to the Earth on its outward return. I can sense the hype beginning already. 😉

    Most memorable Comets from the Islands were Halley, Hyakutake, Hale-Bopp, and Holmes. McNaught arrived during a cloudy interval.

  29. Curt

    Started to leave a comment about how overhyped Lulin has been in the media–especially by ones who haven’t even seen it. Then I read JM’s comment… and he pretty much mirrored my own thoughts.

    Comets are really cool astronomical events. But too often the general public and the casual sky viewers are mislead by how “wow” an event really is or will be. Folks with good binoculars, good ‘scopes, and/or good cameras are being treated with much nicer images of Lulin, but it shouldn’t be hyped as a naked eye event “streaking across the sky,” which actually came out of one talking head.

    If you want to spark your Hyakutake memories, I have two photographs on flickr of the 1996 event. Now THAT was a beautiful naked-eye comet.

  30. Cruise ship kid

    I’m so lucky to be out on a cruise ship in the darkness and clear skies of the open sea, and BOY did we get a great view of LULIN. But it doesn’t hurt to have binoculars. Just amazing!

  31. Density anomaly in the giant planets will be news that is spectacular in the future. And if this law received the astronomical community will replace the theory that explains that the comet is ice balls that orbit the sun. It will also back up again the formation of planet where the giant planet’s radius is now a combination of the radius and height of the atmosphere is actually the planet.


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