A newly noted comet is rocketing toward the sun, and by the time it gets near Earth at the end of 2013, it may very well outshine the full moon, astronomers say.
Comet ISON, as it is known, is one of many sky treats that will be visible over the course of 2013.
Discovered in September 2012, ISON is scheduled to pass about 1.2 million miles from the center of the sun on November 28, 2013, astronomer Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told Reuters. Comets, made largely of ice, vaporize as they approach the sun’s heat, creating their famous tails. ISON’s proximity to the sun could make its tail visible at night with the naked eye from October 2013 through January 2014, Reuters said.
Such comet brilliance has not occurred since the Great Comet of 1680, according to Reuters, and the orbits of the two are similar enough to be composed of fragments from the same parent heavenly body. The Great Comet of 1680 was visible in daytime.
"Comet ISON could be the brightest comet seen in many generations—brighter even than the full moon," wrote British astronomer David Whitehouse in The Independent.
Further, there might be another comet visible, this one in March and April, when it “could also be a magnificent object in the evening sky,” Whitehouse wrote of the commet 2014 L4 (PanSTARRS), discovered in 2010. “2013 could be the year of the great comets.”
The two comets are not 100 percent guaranteed; they could instead burn up in the sun. However, there will be no shortage of heavenly visions throughout 2013, starting with the Quadrantid meteor shower this weekend. Watch for them to peak before dawn on January 3.
Some readers may have seen the moon-Jupiter conjunction around Christmas, but that one will be outshone on January 21 by the last such meeting until 2026, according to Space.com. Jupiter will be just above a nearly full moon on that night.
Mercury will show itself from February 2 through 23, Space.com says, with intense brightness through the 16th. It will be far enough from the sun to be visible in the western sky just after sunset.
A few eclipses will grace our skies during 2013 as well, Space.com reports. The first, on April 25, is a partial lunar eclipse, and the second, on May 9, is another annular eclipse, a ring-of-fire eclipse so named because the moon’s disk does not entirely obscure the sun. Unlike last year’s version of this event, it won’t be visible from Indian country; it will pass mainly over the Pacific Ocean, skimming northern Australia.
For the rest of the year, planets will congregate in May, and the year’s various meteor showers will dazzle. Next December, Venus will be at its brightest on December 5, not returning to that level of evening brilliance until 2021, Space.com says. “In general, 2013 promises an action-packed 12 months for stargazers.”