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2013 could be the best year for comet spotting in generations

A comet set to pass by the Earth could be the brightest in memory, and it's not the only one coming for a visit next year.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
2 min read
No apocalypse is planned for 2013, but it is shaping up to be a comet-gazing year the Mayans would be sad to miss. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The moon could have some serious competition in 2013.

No, we're not finally building a real Death Star, no matter how much the American people demand one. I'm talking about a surprise visit from a recently discovered heavenly body known as the comet Ison. The chunk of ice and rock has likely broken free from the Oort cloud and is heading our way right now. If it survives the journey, astronomers say it could become even brighter than our lunar neighbor in the night sky as it makes a pass through our neighborhood next fall.

According to NASA, the wayward comet is currently hurtling toward the sun somewhere in the vicinity of Jupiter's orbit. By October, it should come very near Mars, possibly allowing NASA's rovers a view as it shakes its tail in their direction. From there, it appears it will continue toward the center of the solar system, passing within a single solar diameter of the sun's surface before heading back more or less the way it came.

Whatever survives the long journey will pass nearest the earth in December 2013. Astronomers say Comet Ison's path is similar to one that passed by earth in 1680 with a tail so bright that it could allegedly be seen in daylight.

"Comet Ison could draw millions out into the dark to witness what could be the brightest comet seen in many generations - brighter even than the full Moon," wrote astronomer David Whitehouse in the Independent.

Of course, Ison could also flame out early.

"Comet Elenin springs to mind as a recent example, but there are more famous examples of comets that got the astronomy community seriously worked up, only to fizzle," said Karl Battams of the NASA-supported Sungrazer Comet Project. "This is quite possibly a 'new' comet coming in from the Oort cloud, meaning this could be its first-ever encounter with the Sun. If so, with all those icy volatiles intact and never having been truly stressed (thermally and gravitationally), the comet could well disrupt and dissipate weeks or months before reaching the sun."

If comet Ison disappoints, 2013 may not be a total bust for comet fans. Comet Pan-Starrs is due to pass by and could be visible in March.

Good thing that Mayan apocalypse didn't pan out. Now the real show begins.