Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin), discovered in July 2007, should be the highlight comet of this season. It's predicted to reach about 5th magnitude in late February, so it should be easily seen in binoculars. It may even become detectable with the unaided eye in a dark, moonless sky.
Below is a calendar of the comet's doings in the coming weeks (and here's an ephemeris). But don't assume that the brightnesses are trustworthy. The comet's brightness behavior may be unpredictable, because it's on a nearly parabolic orbit that suggests this is its first visit to the inner solar system. You never know what a pristine comet might do.
January: Pre-dawn, and Brightening
The comet spends January rapidly getting higher and brighter in the morning sky, as it moves westward from Libra into Virgo. The best time to look is just before the start of morning astronomical twilight. (To find this time for your location, make sure your location and time zone are up to date in our online almanac.)
The beginning of January found Comet Lulin glowing at 7th magnitude, not quite as bright as predicted. It was at perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) on January 10th, at a solar distance of 1.2 a.u. (181 million km). But rather than fading after perihelion, Lulin should brighten as its diminishing distance from us more than compensates for its moving away from the Sun.
Update Jan. 17: Mariano Ribas in Argentina writes: "Despite Moon interference, the comet right now is an easy target for amateur telescopes of 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) and big binoculars here in Buenos Aires, a city with strong light pollution (limiting magnitude about 4). Today, 1½ hours before sunrise, I saw the comet again and estimated its visual magnitude about 7.0, with a coma 3′ in diameter and moderately condensed (DC: 5/6). But no signs of tail."
Update Jan. 21: "Quite visible in 10x50 binocs in spite of the crescent Moon being close," reports Amar Sharma in Bangalore, India. "20x80 binocs gave a better view as a fuzzy globular, and the 8-inch scope did reveal a condensed fuzzy coma ~4-5 arcminutes in diameter."
Update Jan. 22: Still only about mag 6.8 or 7.0 according to reports, about 1 magnitude below predictions.
February: Peak Brightness, Peak Speed
As Comet Lulin nears Earth its speed across the sky will increase. The beginning of February sees the 6th- or 7th-magnitude comet rising around midnight, and it passes within 1° of the wide binocular double star Alpha Librae on the night of February 5–6. Initially moving at about 1° per day, Lulin will be creeping westward at 2° per day by February 11th, when it crosses into Virgo and passes within a quarter degree of Lambda Virginis.
Five days later, on the 16th, comet Lulin — now perhaps 5th or 6th magnitude — will pass 3° north of Spica, and the comet's speed will have increased to 3° per day.
On the night of February 23rd, near its peak brightness, Comet Lulin is passing 2° south-southwest of Saturn.
Lulin's closest approach to Earth, 0.41 a.u. (61 million km), occurs on February 24th, when the comet may reach a peak of magnitude 5. By now it's visible in late evening (after rising around the end of astronomical twilight) and remains in view for the rest of the night.
And it's speeding along at just over 5° per day! That's about 1 arcsecond every 5 seconds of time, enough to show obvious motion during a short telescopic observing session. Similarly, that's 1 arcminute per 5 minutes of time if you're using binoculars.
After that Lulin moves away from both Earth and the Sun, so it fades quickly. The evening of February 27 will see it at 5th or 6th magnitude within 1° of Regulus.
Weird Orbital Geometry
Strangely, as you may have noticed on the charts, this comet is traveling almost exactly along the ecliptic — backward! Could this really be just be a coincidence? The comet's nearly parabolic orbit indicates that it has never really interacted with the planets at all. Yet its orbital inclination is 178.4°, meaning that it's orbiting in the opposite direction from the planets just 1.6° from the ecliptic plane. (Manipulable 3-D orbit diagram).
Tails and Antitails
Because the comet stays nearly on the ecliptic, its tail (which points away from the Sun) aligns with the ecliptic and with the comet's own direction of motion across the sky. This is indicated by the direction the tail is pointed on the comet symbols on the finder charts linked to above.
Moreover, because Earth remains in the comet's own orbital plane, we're likely to see the comet with a very thin tail and an antitail, a spike pointing in almost the opposite direction from the main tail, for months on end. Why? In three dimensions a comet's dust tail is often wide but it's always thin, confined to the comet's orbital plane. When we are in or near this plane, we can sometimes see parts of the wide, thin dust tail on opposite sides of the comet's head. We pass through most comets' orbital planes briefly. But this time, the situation will last and last.
And indeed, as of January 7th Lulin did have an antitail, as shown in this image taken by Karzaman Ahmad in Malaysia with a 20-inch scope (image courtesy Spaceweather.com.) Here's another image, from Ernesto Guido, Giovanni Sostero and Paul Camilleri, taken January 8th. Here's an animation by Guido and Sostero showing the comet's motion between two images taken Jan. 16th and 17th, antitail and all. Here's a photo gallery of more.
A comet's blue-green gas tail, on the other hand, always points nearly in a straight line away from the Sun in space. Cometary gas is blown directly away from the Sun at high speed by the solar wind.
March: Following Lulin Out
Comet Lulin crosses from Leo into Cancer at the beginning of March. The night of March 5 sees the 6th-magnitude comet within 2° of both Delta (δ) Cancri and the Beehive Cluster (M44). It will make for a fine sight, particularly in high-powered binoculars. Think photo opportunity.
Another nice conjunction occurs on March 16th when the comet, now around 7th or 8th magnitude (and setting in the early hours of the morning), is 1° from Delta Geminorum.
As Comet Lulin recedes, its passage across our sky will slow. Indeed, from the end of March to the end of May (when Lulin may have faded to 11th magnitude) it will stay within a narrow, 3° strip of sky bounded by Epsilon (ε), Mu (μ), and 36 Geminorum.
Comet Lulin won't return again to the inner solar system for more than a thousand years.
Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin) was discovered by Quanzhi Ye, a student (age 19) at Sun Yat-sen University in mainland China, as an apparently asteroidal object on images taken by Chi Sheng Lin (National Central University, Taiwan) with a 16-inch telescope at Lulin Observatory in Taiwan on the night of July 11, 2007. A week later, confirming images revealed the telltale presence of a coma. In China and Taiwan, the comet has been hailed as the "Comet of Cooperation."
Lulin was one of 223 comet discoveries on images taken from the ground and in space in 2007, an all-time record.
For a gallery of images and a light curve, check the Comet Lulin page on Seiichi Yoshida's Weekly Information about Bright Comets.
Postscript: What Happened to Comet Boethin?
Another comet was expected to be visible in binoculars around this time: Periodic Comet 85P/Boethin. Discovered in 1975 by the late Rev. Leo Boethin (1912–98) in the Philippines, this comet orbits the Sun every 11 years. Or at least it used to.
Comet Boethin was recovered in 1985 and was predicted to brighten to no more than 12th magnitude during the winter of 1985–86 (when comet watchers were enjoying the buzz of Halley). However, it managed to surprise, reaching 7th magnitude in January 1986!
Did this outburst disrupt it completely? Comet Boethin was on track to return in 1997, but the poor circumstances of that return meant it could not be sighted. Nevertheless, astronomers decided in 2005 to redirect the Deep Impact spacecraft (now renamed the EPOXI mission) to study this comet, as its orbital path was ideal for the spacecraft.
In 2007 observers around the world and in space started searching for Comet Boethin, but to no avail. Not even a fragment has been found. Perhaps some tiny faint bit will be picked up by patrol telescopes in early 2009. But as of December 1, 2008, there was still no trace of it to 20th magnitude.
Fortunately, the EPOXI mission has now been redirected to the short-period comet 103P/Hartley 2. This one has been seen at four apparitions, so its orbit is secure.
This is not the first time that a periodic comet has been seen on two returns only to be lost. One example in the last century was 34D/Gale, discovered in 1927 from the inner suburbs of Sydney, Australia. It was recovered in 1938 but never seen again. Like Boethin, it too, coincidentally, had a period of 11 years.
Sky & Telescope.