Across the Northern Hemisphere, now’s the time to catch a new comet before it vanishes for 400 years. For the first time in almost 400 years, a newly found comet is passing through our local star system.
Northern Hemisphere skywatchers should try to get a glimpse of the traveling ice ball this week or early next since it won’t be back for another 400 years.
On September 12, the kilometer-sized (1/2 mile) comet will pass harmlessly by Earth at a distance of just 78 million miles (125 million kilometers).
About 1 1/2 hours before sunrise, early risers should gaze toward the northeastern horizon, specifically less than 10 degrees above the horizon towards the constellation Leo. The comet will become more visible as it approaches the sun, but it will be harder to see since it will be lower in the sky.
The comet is dim enough to be seen with the naked eye.
“So you really need a good pair of binoculars to pick it out and you also need to know where to look,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies.
On or around September 17, the comet will approach the sun at its closest point (getting closer than Mercury does) before leaving our solar system. This is provided it survives the close encounter with the sun. However, Chodas did say, “it’s likely to survive its passage.”
From the Northern Hemisphere, the next week marks “the last, feasible chances” to view the comet before it is lost in the sun’s glare, according to an email from Virtual Telescope Project creator and Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi.
He added that a lengthy, highly complex tail makes the comet a delight to observe with a telescope.
Masi predicted that by the end of September, the comet, should it make it through its close encounter with the sun, would be visible in the Southern Hemisphere, low on the horizon during the evening twilight.
Since it was discovered by a Japanese amateur astronomer in mid-August, stargazers have been keeping a close eye on the uncommon green comet. His name has been given to the Nishimura comet.
Chodas said that it is uncommon for an amateur to discover a comet in the modern era because of the abundance of professional sky surveys using large ground telescopes, but that “this is his third find, so good for him.”
Chodas estimated that the comet’s previous sighting was about 430 years ago. Those dates place them around two decades before Galileo invented the telescope.