Comet ISON – the much-anticipated, dirty sungrazing snowball that may or may not live up to media hype – can be seen with binoculars before sunrise this week, low on the horizon. Next week, from our Earthly perspective, the comet will be too close to the sun to find.
“It’s dropping rapidly toward the Eastern horizon, making it harder and harder to see,” says Elizabeth Warner, coordinator of the University of Maryland’s observatory.
Comet ISON reaches perihelion on Nov. 28 – Thanksgiving Day – which means it is the closest the comet gets to the sun in its orbit. After perihelion, it may be visible to Earth again in early December. Astronomers don’t know whether our frozen comet friend will survive traveling around the hot sun or whether it may disintegrate in some way.
Video: This NASA Goddard video explains how sungrazing comets – including Comet ISON – make their perilous journey around the sun.
On Nov. 14, the comet brightened and provided hope for a beautiful cosmic show. On the morning of Nov. 15, Warner and a group of University of Maryland students and faculty observed the comet – currently a fifth-magnitude object and impossible to detect with the naked eye from Washington – in binoculars and small telescopes. They reported a noticeably green coma.
Mike Lewis, of Alexandria, a long-time member of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (http://www.novac.com) observed Comet ISON last Thursday and Friday mornings from near Aldie, Va., and he reports a fuzzy green ball with a wisp of a tail.
The bright green tint is a combination of sunlight reflected from dust grains and molecules struck by ultraviolet sunlight, explains the NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign website.
Finding Comet ISON
You’ll need patience and perseverance, as this comet is hard to see now. Barring any clouds for the next several mornings, the comet can be best observed between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., according to Lewis.
Tuesday morning, says Lewis, look to the east-southeastern sky where the comet is directly under Spica, low on the horizon. The comet is below Spica on Wednesday and Thursday, as well.
On Friday, the comet will be to the right of the planet Mercury and on Saturday, it will be to the right of Mercury and Saturn.
On Sunday and Monday – getting closer to the sun – the comet appears to the lower right of Mercury and Saturn in the east-southeastern sky, just above the horizon.
Lewis says that by Wednesday Nov. 27, the comet is lost in the sun’s glare as it approaches perihelion.
Between Nov. 27 and Nov. 30, don’t try to find the comet. The sun’s glare hides it. Do not use binoculars or a telescope to find – otherwise, you will be in danger of becoming permanently blinded. Never look at the sun through binoculars or a telescope. Instead, enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and the Black Friday sales during this period.
Comet ISON in December
Comet ISON, discovered in September 2012 by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) in Russia, may be a decent object to spot in December. But first, it must escape the sun relatively unscathed.
If Comet ISON doesn’t break up, look to the east-southeast where the comet starts rising on consecutive mornings during the first week in December. In late December, the comet could become visible in the night sky.
“We’ve been down this path before. In 1973 another newly discovered sungrazing comet captured worldwide media attention for its potential as a bright comet,” Lewis said. “While Kohoutek did put on a decent show for backyard and professional astronomers, it failed to brighten enough to impress the public.”
Lewis explained: “Like most comets, they’re unpredictable – and this one is living up to it’s billing.”