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A guide to spotting bright Comet Lovejoy

The first big comet-spotting opportunity of the year is already under way. Here's how to head outside this month to spy a steaming space rock called Lovejoy.

Comet Lovejoy as seen on New Year's EveNASA/Dieter Willasch (Astro-Cabinet)

Comet C/2014 Q2, otherwise known as Lovejoy, has been hanging around in our night skies for a few weeks now, but it's currently entering what will likely be the brightest and easiest-to-spot part of its journey around our sun, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

The comet was first discovered last August by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy using his backyard telescope (this is the fifth comet he's found, BTW) and was at its closest point to Earth on Wednesday. It will be at its brightest starting roughly now and into the next few weeks as it approaches the sun, hopefully increasing the size and brilliance of its coma while remaining relatively in our neck of the celestial woods.

Using data from NASA, it was reported on Friday that the comet had a visual magnitude of 4.32, meaning it should be visible from places with limited light pollution like rural areas and outer suburbs. But even if you're in a more populated spot, there's a good chance you can spot it with a pair of binoculars.

To find Lovejoy, simply head outside on a clear night, ideally in the early evening hours just after dark, and look for the constellation Orion. The three bright stars that make up Orion's belt, and the hunter's arrow itself, will roughly be pointing toward the comet over the next week or so. There's a more-detailed illustration here (PDF).

If you miss it, Comet Lovejoy is scheduled to return again, and the chances are good that your calendar will be completely open, since it won't be back for about 8,000 years.