It’s been an amazing year for space, both in humanity’s exploration of it, and in the spectacular images that NASA’s many telescopes have given us. But we’re looking at these things mostly through computers, newspapers, and magazines. The sky above has plenty to offer the naked or telescoped eye, but much of it is the same. I know it’s a cynical way of looking at something with a never-ending streak of being awe-inspiring. But my attention span has become minuscule over the years, and the Gemenid meteor shower was sooo three weeks ago.
From the depths of the Oort cloud, traveling millions of miles across the universe, brought to you by — or discovered by, rather — Russia’s Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, the comet C/2012 S1 will take over the skies in 2013. The comet, more commonly known as Comet Ison, after the International Scientific Optical Network where it was discovered, will be visible to telescopes and binoculars by the end of the summer. It will bypass Mars some time in October, where its dark, pock-marked, icy surface will then shift due to thermal shock, its crust will begin to crack, and gas will seep through the cracks as it warms up, forming the tail.
But it gets exciting, assuming you get excited by these things, when the comet passes by Earth’s orbit, when all of the ice beneath the comet’s surface will turn into gas. Kaboom! OMNDT (Oh my Neil Degrasse Tyson), the comet of my dreams will erupt into a giant reflection of the sun’s light, making it the brightest thing in the sky, with a coma — the surrounding gas cloud — thousands of miles from end to end. Award-winning science writer and astronomer David Whitehouse says it could be “brighter than the full moon.” Which still makes it only about a tenth as bright as a police car’s lights. And the best part is, this isn’t something that, assuming it does indeed happen, will just be a moonbright flash in the pan.
By late November, you’ll be able to see it with the naked eye, traveling in the same side of the sky as the setting sun, and after it swings around the sun, it will head toward the pole star, where it can be seen for months. Whitehouse says at points “its tail could stretch like a searchlight into the sky above the horizon.” You should obviously be careful when looking for it when it’s intensely bright while nearest the sun, which can damage your eye parts, but you can be sure someone will sell specialty glasses while other people will share videos online on how to make them at home. And to make matters even better, a comet discovered last year, L4 (PanSTARRS), could possibly be passing somewhere visible in March or April. That’s two comets for the price of living on the big blue marble.