NASA scientists have announced that for the first time in million years, a rare comet is set to be visible from Earth using just binoculars to skywatchers this week. The comet will be visible before the object heads back into outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit lasting thousands of years.
The comet, named C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, will be close enough to Earth between now and 14 January to potentially be seen in the night sky with binoculars or even the naked eye.
The comet “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Centre for Near—Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.
C/2016 U1 was first detected by Nasa in October and is currently heading past Earth on its way towards the sun, where it will pass through the orbit of Mercury on January 14, before heading back to the outer Solar System for an orbit lasting thousands of years.
As seen from the northern hemisphere during the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn. The comet will be seen further south every day until it disappears from sight sometime in mid-January.
The comet has an orbit that could take millions of years, meaning this could be the first and last time it gets so close to Earth. Comets typically only have a lifespan of one or two million years.
While it will be visible to skywatchers at Earth, it is not considered a threat to our planet either.
NASA’s NEOWISE mission has recently discovered some celestial objects travelling through our neighborhood, including one on the blurry line between asteroid and comet. An object called 2016 WF9 was detected by the NEOWISE project on November 27 last year.
WF9 is believed to be tenth comet discovered by Nasa’s Neowise mission since it was re-started in 2013. The researchers have also discovered 99 new asteroids.
Scientists are not entirely sure whether to class C/2016 U1 as a comet or an asteroid, but believe it is more likely to be a comet.