Comet ISON may have broken up as it grazed the sun, but the skies are still starry, Venus is bright, and there’s a meteor shower in store.
The consensus is that comet ISON’s sun plunge proved fatal, save for some debris that seems to be floating along the ex–celestial body’s orbital path. Without a nucleus, it is not much of a comet—and the nucleus, astronomers agree, seems to have been burnt to a cosmic crisp when the comet passed within 730,000 miles of the sun on Thanksgiving Day.
Though NASA scientists are still combing images and sifting data to determine what if anything survived, they have already called off what was supposed to be December’s main astronomical attraction. Even if something is traveling along the path formerly occupied by comet ISON, it is expected to be dim as it quickly dissipates.
So what now? With no showstopper, is there still a show? As it turns out, there is plenty, starting with … another comet. This would be comet Lovejoy (that’s C/2013 R1 to you), discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in September (his fourth such find). It has been traveling alongside (at least from our vantage point) ISON for the past several weeks, though lacking the same self-destructive tendencies—its orbit did not take it any closer to the sun than Mercury, keeping the comet intact, according to Universe Today.
It will reach perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, on Christmas Day, the astronomy website said. Seeing this one requires a bit of equipment, as it is not visible to the naked eye. But binoculars or a small telescope should do the trick.
For those without access to said equipment, there is always Venus, the shining, constant planet of love (or war, if you go the Maya route). The second planet from the sun is as close to us as it ever gets, and though December 6 saw its brightest apparition, the orb is still brilliant for a few hours just after sunset.
It’s in the low southwestern sky, Space.com reports. Ironically, it is not a “full” Venus that we are faced with, yet it is brighter than that would be because when the planet is facing us will full-on sun illumination, it is much farther away, on the other side of our star, and thus much dimmer. At the moment Venus is relatively close to Earth, so is especially dazzling these days, even though we’re only getting a portion of the disk.
Of course, unless you’re using some of the aforementioned equipment, that distinction will be meaningless. All the naked-eye stargazer will see is the unparalleled beauty of this gleaming diamond in the sky, especially as it brushes with the waxing crescent moon.
In the middle of the month, on December 13 and 14, the Geminid meteor shower peaks—and this time the moon is poised to offer minimal interference, unlike the last two showers, the Geminids and the Orionids, which were outshone.
So yes, though ISON may be nothing but free-floating icy debris, there are still plenty of reasons to look up this month.