As 2016 comes to a close corks will be popping and fireworks firing to be sure. But make sure in all the excitement you don’t miss the celestial fireworks!
There will be the opportunity for you to see periodic Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova in the constellation Capricornus. This comet has an orbital period of just 5.25 years that takes out to Jupiter’s orbit before plunging back toward the Sun.
The best time to view will be just after sunset on new years eve, December 31, 2016. The south-western sky will be filled with other great objects for you to observe besides the comet including the Moon, Venus, Mars and Neptune.
The sky chart above shows Comet 45P at about 21 degrees above the horizon and roughly 5 degrees away from the Moon. This will make for great viewing with binoculars or a telescope.
In early February this comet will pass within 0.1 AU of the earth. It is predicted to reach maximum brightness of magnitude ~7 in early January.
Below is a broader view of the same area of sky on 12-31-2016 showing the other planets, Venus, Mars and Neptune which will also be visible.
Mars and Neptune will be mere 0.2 degrees a part and visible in the same field of view of a telescope. Use high power eyepieces on Neptune to see it’s small blueish disk. Mars’ red color will be easily discernible.
Shining brightly at -4.4, Venus will be the show stopper. Known as the morning or evening star, as it never wanders far from the Sun from our vantage point, seen through a telescope Venus will appear as a gibbous disc that is about 60% sunlit.
So while the party is going on slip out into the cool or cold night air and view the big show of planets and comets. And take note, these celestial orbs will be setting about the time to red orb drops in NYC.
The colder nights are upon us now and that means crisp, clear, bug-free viewing for us in the southwestern U.S. It just so happens a dirty snowball will grace our skies as well. Comet Catalina C/2013 US10 will be making its way higher into the northern skies in December and January. There will be a great photo-op on New Years Day, January 1, 2016 when Catalina will be snuggled up next to the fourth brightest star in the sky, orange giant Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.
Discovered on Halloween in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey the comet will be closest to Earth on January 12, 2016 at 66.9 million miles. That’s over two-thirds the distance from the Earth to the Sun in case you are keeping track at home kids.
Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2, is heading our way out of deep space and gliding up out of the southern sky. Estimates have it brightening to 5th magnitude by late December through much of January as it climbs into excellent viewing position for those in the northern hemisphere. This means a naked-eye comet could be visible this winter.
When Comet ISON, or more accurately C/2012 S1 ISON, was first discovered on September 21, 2012 it presented itself in images taken with a 16-inch telescope belonging to the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). This group is made up of several observatories around the globe specialized in finding asteroids. Comet ISON was found 625 million miles from the Earth (roughly 6.5 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) and was extremely faint at magnitude +18.
For over a year now since it was discovered it has continued to venture into the inner solar system on course to having a close encounter with the Sun. It will reach perihelion on November 28, 2013, at a distance of only 1.1 million miles from the Sun. By comparison the planet Mercury (the closest planet to the Sun) can get as close as 28.5 million miles from the Sun. So ISON will get extremely close to the Sun and for all intents and purposes it will be a sun-grazing comet.
At this posting ISON is currently magnitude +9.5 and only brightened slightly over the month of October. The hope is that trend will change as the comet continues to get closer to the Sun. If Comet ISON survives its close encounter with the Sun on November 28, 2013, it could emerge glowing extremely bright! In fact there is the possibility that the comet could easily be visible near the Sun in broad daylight. If the comet’s nucleus breaks apart just after perihelion much more material (ice, dust and gas) will be exposed to the intense solar radiation and it will be spread over an even larger area meaning it’s brightness will increase even more. But there is really no way to know or predict what it will do. That in itself is part of the fun and fascination of observing comets. You just never know what the next day may bring. Comets may brighten suddenly or fizzle and fade or they can even break apart into a string of pearls.
Comet ISON has the potential to become a bright and memorable comet such as Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 but most astronomers thought it would be brighter than it currently is given its location so close to the Sun. Only time will tell. Comet ISON might just have a few tricks up it’s sleeve. So when will be the best time to see the comet? December should be the best time to view comet ISON. The comet will emerge into the morning sky early in the month but by mid-December the comet will then be visible at both dawn and dusk! It will be visible from the eastern horizon just before sunrise and low in the west soon after sunset. By Christmas the comet will make its closest approach to Earth, Comet ISON will be a circumpolar object. It will stay visible all night, 20° above the northwestern horizon in the early evening and 60° high in the northeast just before dawn. Get ready for a winter/holiday comet display that could be full of surprises.
In late April Comet Lemmon crossed the celestial equator making its way north. Good news for us! If you missed Comet PANSTARRS in March you can search for Comet Lemmon low in the morning sky, just above the eastern horizon. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to spot Comet Lemmon. Begin by sweeping slowly with binoculars about one hour before sunrise, looking for a fuzzy “star” with a short tail. The comet will be fading as the days of May tick away so observe early. Tomorrow morning (May 6th) a thin crescent Moon will pass a short distance south of Comet Lemmon making it a little easier to find. Comet Lemmon, which was discovered in March 2012, is traveling alongside the Great Square in Pegasus and will continue to do so the next few weeks (see finder chart). The chart shows the sky facing east at 5:30 a.m. on the days indicated.