Welcome to January 2023, a month I’ve been looking forward to for nearly a year. Why? Read the title: we have a possibly naked-eye comet in our midst, something that hasn’t happen for us northern hemisphere folk since 2020. And 2020 was a fantastically perfect year for a pleasant comet distraction…
That was the best picture I got of comet NEOWISE, also known officially as C/2020 F3, from the Year of Doom. Not a great pic but I didn’t use a telescope. And if a crummy camera can get that image, you know it looked amazing to your naked eyeballs. Now for the possibly long wait until the next bright comet came near us…
…Oh, sooner than I thought! January 2023 would have a possibly-bright comet! I was hyped. I’m going to also point out I waited from the 1990s until 2017 for the solar eclipse. This waiting period would be laughably easy. And the weather in January is usually crispy, cold, and with crystal-clear skies.
And you know where this is gonna go…
“How does the comet look?” you ask. “Is it bright? Does it have a tail? How was the reward for your two-year wait?”
“Clouds. So many clouds.” No joke, it’s been cloudy here (Northern Illinois) for about three weeks. We’ve gotten peeks of sunlight here and there but nothing consistent. Nothing clear enough to start hunting for a comet in the wee a.m. hours.
Here’s a picture from someone I follow on Insta. They have tons of great astropics and are are stupidly talented; please check out their Mars/Moon pictures! Anyways, this is what the comet apparently looks like:
It wont look that vivid with just your eyeballs but don’t let the lack of totally bright colors dissuade you from checking it out for real. Comets are crazy things to see in the sky; they look mysterious, like they don’t belong up there.
What even are comets?
Bitching about my luck aside, what are comets? The first thing to note is they’re temporary; they don’t just hang out in the sky year after year. These little frozen balls of stuff from the outer solar system have stupidly long and extended orbits, for example our current comet C/2022 E3 ZTF has an orbital period of 50,000 years, fucking prehistoric humans would’ve been the last to see it. Even worse, this comet might be ejected out of the solar system. With such a long orbit that takes it far away from the sun, gravity from other stars can easily boot our friend from our solar system all together. We might never see this particular snowball ever again…
And since they have such long-ass orbits, this means they come blasting through the inner solar system with ridiculous speeds. Even if they do get close to the Earth we have at most a half-year to view them. They’re transient. Some are brighter, some are dimmer — comet Hale Bop in 1997 was visible for 18 months! — but they never hang around for long. The clock is always ticking with viewing comets…
Since they’re snowballs, roughly, they get all gassy when they get near the sun. ‘Near the sun’ is relative; once they cross the orbit of Mars(ish) many of the materials start to evaporate and outgas making the famous tail as the sun blows all the shit away from it. Fun fact: the tail always points away from the sun and doesn’t trail the comet. The closer to the sun, the brighter they get. And the closer to Earth they are, the brighter they get. Duh.
Some comets like CoMeT IsOn, expected to be “The Great Comet of 2013,” fly a bit too close to the sun and get vaporized. These are called ‘sungrazers’ and the name is not hyperbole. Our current comet didn’t get super-close to the sun, nowhere near it compared to other comets, but it will get pretty close to us. Closest approach to Earth: February 1 at a distance of ‘only’ 42,000,000 km. So not that close, but closeish.
How do I see it?!?!?!?!
Here’s a star chart. Sorry it’s in Deutsch.
Find yourself an app like heavens above (only on Android lulz), some dark skies, and start looking for a barely-visible splotch in the sky. Comets are diffuse so light pollution will ruin your ability to see it (depending on how bright it is, obviously). It’ll move daily so consult the chart above!
Anything that collects light for your shitty eyeballs will help; getting yourself some binoculars will make bright-comet hunting akin to hunting fish in a barrel. This one should easily be visible in binoculars even if your skies are fairly light polluted. Long-exposure photography would also work if you’re binocularless or telescopeless.
And if you’re here in the Midwest like myself, well…it can’t stay cloudy forever, right? Right?? And even if it does, we’ll get this guy back in 50,000 years, maybe. Or we can wait until 2061 for Halley’s Comet to come back around.
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