Observatory to Zoom in on Comet Lovejoy

Westmont ObservatoryThe Comet Lovejoy will tantalize stargazers at this month’s free public viewing of the stars with Westmont’s powerful Keck Telescope on Friday, Jan. 16, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and lasting several hours at the Westmont Observatory. In case of inclement or overcast weather, please call the Telescope Viewing Hotline at (805) 565­-6272 and check the Westmont website to see if the viewing has been canceled.

The Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is making its closest approach to earth, 44 million miles away. “I’ve been watching it from our back yard for the last week and it’s a bright one,” says Thomas Whittemore, Westmont physics instructor. “It’s almost a naked­-eye object at this point, and at the public viewing, there will be no moon to interfere with the comet’s brightness. I have yet to see a tail on Lovejoy, but maybe we will get lucky with Westmont’s 8-­inch refractor telescope.”

Whittemore says he will use the Keck Telescope, a 24-­inch reflector, to zoom in on the Orion Nebula. “This 1,400 light-­year-­distant stellar nursery is always a wintertime treat,” he says.

Weather permitting, the viewing may also include the Crab Nebula in Taurus. “Viewed across the world in 1054, there are many records of this supernova explosion,” Whittemore says. “Today we see the remnants of the exploded star as Messier 1, the Crab Nebula. To me, even through a moderate-­sized telescope, the nebula’s structure looks like a splash of milk.”

The observatory opens its doors to the public every third Friday of the month in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, whose members bring their own telescopes to Westmont for the public to gaze through. The Keck Telescope is housed in the observatory between Russell Carr Field and the track and field/soccer complex. Free parking is available near the baseball field. Here is a pdf of the campus map.