Time lapse: The spectacle of Comet Lovejoy

By Phil Plait | December 27, 2011 9:56 am

The comet called Lovejoy is still putting on an amazing show for folks south of the Equator. Stéphane Guisard, an astrophotographer who takes stunning pictures of the sky (see Related Posts, below), was in Chile where Lovejoy is making a splashy scene just before sunrise. He created an amazing and lovely time lapse video of the comet, showing just how incredible this ephemeral visitor is:

[The video is hosted on Vimeo; if you have a hard time seeing it, there’s also a copy on YouTube. Either way, make sure the resolution is set to its highest setting, and make it full screen.]

That’s phenomenal. The comet is seemingly pinned to the tail of the constellation Scorpius, deep in the path of the Milky Way. You can see some of the stars of Scorpius around the comet as well as a few deep-sky objects like clusters and nebulae.

The tail of the comet — made of dust particles and gas streaming from the solid, frozen (and quite tiny) nucleus of the comet as it’s heated by the Sun — is millions of kilometers long; the comet was over 100 million kilometers from Earth when these pictures were taken!

If you live in the southern hemisphere, the comet is visible just before sunrise; face east to see it. Binoculars should help. Finder charts are all over the web; Heaven’s Above is one I use quite often. You’ll want the darkest skies possible, and a clear horizon.

What a week for observing! All 8 planets are visible in the sky, from Mercury to Neptune (you’ll need binoculars at least for Uranus, and a telescope for Neptune; again check Heavens Above for a chart), as well as the Moon, and this spectacular and short-lived traveler. It’s almost enough to make me want to catch a flight to the Outback and set up camp, just for this chance at a long and once-in-a-lifetime night of viewing.

Credit: Stéphane Guisard, used by permission.

Related posts:

INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy
Time lapse video: ISS cometrise
Orion in the Mayan skies
Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009 (see #3 for St√©phane’s picture)
AMAZING wide-angle time lapse night sky video!
Time lapse: old rocks and old skies

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (25)

Links to this Post

  1. Comet Lovejoy Time Lapse of the Day - TDW Geeks | December 27, 2011
  2. Lovejoy « Roqoo Depot | January 6, 2012
  1. Bill

    These spectacular videos need a soundtrack. Might I suggest “Mysterious Traveler” by Weather Report (goes with the cover art).

  2. “All 8 planets are visible in the sky.”

    Well I looked up and I couldn’t find the Earth anywhere! Please help.

  3. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    For some reason, my work computer doesn’t play embedded Vimeo videos, but they work fine on Vimeo.com. If you’re having problems, click on the Vimeo button in the lower-right corner and see if that works.

  4. Lorena

    I just went to heavens above, but I dont understand the chart. it doesnt give me a predicion of times and where it will appear like with satellites, it’s just a graphic. I live in buenos aires argentina, I really want to see the comet.

  5. Alexandra

    This is exquisite; thank you for sharing. I underscore Bill’s comment as well; the video definitely requires a score.

  6. Lorena, viewing a comet is more like viewing a planet: It’s moving very slowly through the sky, and will change position slightly from night to night. Heavens-Above will show you what part of the sky it will be visible in, and (I think) when it will be visible. Then it will be a trick of having clear skies, a clear horizon, and being able to view the horizon just before sunrise (but not TOO soon before sunrise, or the glow of dawn will make the comet invisible.)

  7. Kathy King

    Absolutely amazing does not seem to cover it!

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    Finally saw comet Lovejoy myself after many mornings of being thwarted by clouds! ūüėÄ

    3.40- 4 am Adelaide South Australian time – 5 am here now and near sunrise. Beautiful etheral sight. Just below the Southern Cross stretching up to Alpha Centauri from just above the horizon. All straight tail not much if any head or comae like a faint narrow contrail very diffuse but still easily visible to unaided eye. Length is about double the distance of the pointers. (Alpha & Beta Cen) Disappears very quickly into dawn twilight whilst stars remain visible even faint ones like Epsilon Crucis.

    Great video here Рthanks BA & Stéphane Guisard. :-)

    You get a better view from the Andes with much less light pollution and trees in the way & it helps to have a long exposure camera – but I’m not complaining! ūüėČ

  9. Musical Lottie

    Wow, Heavens Above is fantastic – comprehensive yet simple enough for this amateur to gain some decent use from it – thanks for pointing us there! Brilliant. I won’t be able to see the comet for myself, but if these wretched clouds would just shift then I might be able to see some more planets :)

  10. @4. Lorena :

    There’s a set of finder charts for comet Lovejoy in the article linked to my name here – scroll down for them – but unfortunately those are now out of date with the latest one being for this morning.

    Although now I think of it if you see this quickly that may still work for this morning. (Weds. 28th Dec.) How far behind Australia is Argentina’s time zone? If it helps it is now 5.35 am my time for posting this comment. I presume this blog is in Boulder’s USA time zone for comparison.

    The comet will be visible – clouds & local horizon blocking obstacles permitting – from when it rises above the horizon until it gets washed out by the dawn twilight.

    When I saw it this morning the end of the tail was just about at the “Pointers” (Alpha & Beta Centauri) to the Southern Cross with the rest of the comet stretching down with its indistinct head just a little way above the horizon. Good luck – hope this helps! :-)


    The ‚Äúpointers‚ÄĚ to the Southern Cross are two of the brightest stars in our sky. The one further from the cross and slightly brighter is Alpha Centauri our nearest stellar neighbour at 4.3 light years away and the third brightest star as seen in Earth’s skies behind Canopus, Sirius – and some planets! The other one – closer to the cross and slightly dimmer – is a blue supergiant binary star called Hadar, Agena or just Beta Centauri and is almost as bright but lies some 350 light years away! Comet Lovejoy – to my eyes – measured roughly twice the distance the pointers are apart as judged by thumb & index finger held outstretched at arms length.

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    Source for the distance to Hadar – Beta Centauri :


    as updated June 5, 2006 – as the article explains the distance to Hadar (Beta Cen) has varied over time as various studies have refined it. Once in a much older source it was listed as the pleasingly semi-symmetrical four hundred and sixty light years or so versus Alpha Cen’s four point three. (350 ly or so doesn’t have quite the same appeal but the cosmos has not been obliging here.)

    Kaler’s page on Hadar is here :


    with plenty more info if anyone is curious to know more. Beta Centauri is the eleventh brightest star in Earth’s skies – and surely the brightest of all for a whole lot of exoplanets located much nearer to it!

    Finally, here’s that link to the ‘Comet 2011 W3 (Lovejoy): A Christmas comet and beyond’ article with findercharts for Comet Lovejoy once again :


    Just in case that’s better and more helpful for folks here. :-)

  12. Lorena

    Thanks for the help!! I thought the comet moved really fast, but if it is slow and looking at it it’s just like finding a plant, I guess I’ll be able to watch it.

    Australia vs ARgentina, I would say something like 11-12 hours difference. Right now is 5pm tuesday afternoon here, I think I have 1 hour difference with Chile, where that video was taken….

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    As Bill Simpson has mentioned on the ‘INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy’ thread (comment #15 there.) there’s some good images and articles turning up in the online media like this one:


    & this one :


    While wikipedia :


    already has a reasonable entry on Comet Lovejoy incl. its alternative name of “the Great “Birthday Comet” of 2011 (to celebrate the ‘birthday’ of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Although I think the 2011 Christmas / Hannukah / Sol Invictus (insert dec. holiday of choice) comet suits it even better! ūüėČ

  14. Other Paul


    Well I looked up and I couldn’t find the Earth anywhere!

    Ah, well, there’s your mistake right there.

  15. Mandarb

    I’m in Pretoria, SA, and it has been cloudy every single morning since Lovejoy has passed the sun. Quite frustrating.

  16. Archie

    Is it possible to see the comet in the northern hemisphere, in Scandinavia? If not, why? Everybody talks about visibility in the south but don’t mention anything useful for us living here in the north.

  17. icemith

    Likewise, Sydney, Australia has had clouds. Hopefully later it may clear.


  18. #17 Archie:
    No, you can’t see the comet in Scandinavia. Why? You answered your own question – “visibility in the south”! Because it’s in the southern hemisphere of the sky! It’s near the Southern Cross, which you obviously can’t see from Scandinavia.

  19. icemith

    Good-ish sky (eventually), on the 29th, but still no sighting. There was a pesky horizon cloud out to sea, just obscuring the comet, (I presume). And so to bed.

    The 30th, was clouded out totally.

    So for tonight’s prospect, (well, tomorrow morning), I shall live in hope. So far this arvo, it has been brighter, and a distinct possibility it will be clearer in the morning.


  20. UBS

    @1. Bill: As for soundtrack, I suggest Jean-Luc Ponty’s Cosmic Messenger

  21. Archie

    # 19. Neil: thanks for your reply, but I was able to see Comet McNaught in January 2007 here in Finland. It was seen both in Southern and Northern hemisphere. So what’s the difference in visibility between these two comets?

  22. rich lovejoy

    i would like to subscribe to someones news letter about comet lovejoy’s exsistance & travell’s through space & naround the world, i think its an amasing comet to say the least as long as my last name is lovejoy has a lot to do with it ha ha….i live in charles city iowa usa 110 ceder terrace north,50616…tnx for any feed back rich lovejoy…

  23. rich lovejoy

    stephane guisard, thank you for those amasing pics & vidio’s…absolutey fantastic,best iv ever seen on a comet,must be because it’s lovejoy ha ha!!! keep up the good work..rich lovejoy..


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