Right now, a newly discovered comet named Lovejoy is just a faint light in the the constellation Cancer. But astronomers predict that by the end of 2013 and into the beginning of 2014, as Lovejoy comes a bit closer and becomes visible to the naked eye, there could be a point where it’s a brighter point in the sky than the moon.
The comet is already remarkably bright, given how far it is from the sun, astronomer Raminder Singh Samra said. What’s more, 2012 S1 seems to be following the path of the Great Comet of 1680, considered one of the most spectacular ever seen from Earth.
“If it lives up to expectations, this comet may be one of the brightest in history,” said Samra, of the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.
So what makes a comet a showstopper? A lot depends on how much gas and dust is blasted off the central core of ice and rocks. The bigger the resulting cloud and tail, the more reflective the body may be.
Because 2012 S1 appears to be fairly large—possibly approaching two miles (three kilometers) wide—and will fly very close to the sun, astronomers have calculated that the comet may shine brighter, though not bigger, than the full moon in the evening sky.
First spotted late last week by Russian astronomers Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), comet 2012 S1 was confirmed by the International Astronomical Union on Monday.
But while we know what 2012 S1 is, it’s still unclear where it came from. Its orbit suggests the comet may be a runaway from the Oort cloud, where billions of comets orbit about a hundred thousand times farther from the sun than Earth is.
“For astronomers, these distant origins are exciting,” Samra said, “because it allows us to study one of the oldest objects in the solar system still in its original, pristine condition.”
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