Zodiacal Light and the Phantom Comet


Zodiacal Light at Dawn from New Mexico (Dec 2013)

The Zodiacal Light shines bright in the New Mexico dawn, near where the ill-fated Comet ISON would have been.

This was the dawn sky on the morning of December 6, 2013 looking east from our observing site at the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico.

The zodiacal light was bright pre-dawn extending up from the horizon to high overhead. This glow is from sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system.

Adding to that cloud of dust is presumably the remains of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) – this image includes the position where ISON would have appeared had it survived, with its head left of centre, just left of the zodiacal light, and just above the mountain ridge. Its tail would have arched up and to the left, had it grown an extensive dust tail as was hoped.

As it is, there is a comet in the field – Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a tiny blue blip at far left, a minor consolation prize for missing ISON. Pity ISON didn’t work out, as we would have had two photogenic and naked eye comets in the dawn sky together.

The field also contains two planets: Mars in Leo above and right of centre, and Saturn in Libra just coming up over the mountains in the middle of the zodiacal light. Both lie in the zodiacal light because the light follows the ecliptic – i.e. the plane of the solar system and the orbits of the planets.

– Alan, December 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Enjoying Lovejoy, the Consolation Comet


Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013)

Comet Lovejoy shines above the New Mexico desert in the pre-dawn sky. 

We came here for Comet ISON but have had to settle for Comet Lovejoy, a decent enough comet in the morning sky, but not the spectacle we had hoped for.

This was Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as it appeared this morning, December 6, under very good New Mexico skies marred only by some scattered clouds and patches of airglow. The main image is a 50mm lens shot of the wide scene looking east.

The comet was visible to the naked eye, but just barely as a fuzzy star. It took the long exposure photos to bring out its blue ion tail, stretching 6° to 10° across the sky and pointed down toward the sunrise point in the east.

Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013) 135mm

I took the close-up shot above with a 135mm telephoto lens showing the bright head and faint ion tail. The tail here measures 6° long, though a deeper exposure might have picked up more, up to 10° long. But I think reports of seeing a tail up to 5° long with the naked eye are wishful seeing. The comet and tail are not that obvious, and we are in superb skies.

Still, Lovejoy makes a fine comet consolation prize, substituting for the ill-fated Comet ISON. It was a beautiful morning to enjoy Lovejoy in the quiet and star-filled New Mexico dawn.

– Alan, December 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

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