High in the sky, soon after the sun drops behind the western horizon, area residents might be able to see something resembling a faint, fuzzy cotton swab. It's Comet Bradfield and it's sweeping past Earth on an outbound journey to the edge of the solar system.
Even without the T-shirts, coffee mugs and media saturation that accompany famous comets, the relatively unknown Bradfield might be a better view than last year's visit by Halley, area astronomers said.
Not only is Bradfield a prime-time comet, but it's also staying longer in the evening. Halley, at its peak, remained low over the horizon, mostly in the wee morning hours.
"The whole aspect of Halley is very, very similar" to Bradfield, said Jim DeYoung, an astronomer at the Naval Observatory. "For the Northern Hemisphere, Bradfield's going to be very high in the sky."
Bradfield should be bright as comets go. Astronomers use the term magnitude to describe brightness. Bradfield should reach +4.9 magnitude by next week, just within naked-eye visibility.
More than two dozen comets have been discovered this year, but Bradfield will put on the best show. To locate the comet, first find a dark sky free of city lights.
What any sky gazer can expect to see with the naked eye is what looks like a faint star, particularly in a countryside location. Only with binoculars or a telescope will Bradfield look like a comet.
Look south of west, high and to the left of where the sun has set.
The next 10 days is the best time to catch this comet. Aside from shunning city lights, DeYoung suggests bringing a pair of binoculars.
"It's not a knock-your-socks-off type thing. What we're talking about is a binocular object," said John Trasco, an astronomer at the University of Maryland. For the best view, Trasco recommends going as far south of Washington as possible.
Discovered in August by an Australian astronomer, William Bradfield, the comet was recently measured to be 93 million miles from Earth.
The last time this comet passed Earth, the Mayans were a new civilization in Central America. It's taken 2,500 years for this comet to return to this galactic neighborhood. It will remain a binocular object through the end of the year. For the next chance to see this comet, the wait will be long -- sometime around the 45th century.