Last year, NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission detected an object that may be possibly seen using only a pair of binoculars once it gets close enough to Earth.
The object, whose characteristics hint it is a comet, is known as C/2016 U1 NEOWISE. The celestial body releases dust as it gets near the sun just like other comets including comet 67P, which the Rosetta probe of the European Space Agency observed producing clouds of gas and dust as it got nearer the sun.
Ninth Comet Discovered By NEOWISE Mission Since Reactivation
Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE was discovered by the NEOWISE space observatory on Oct. 21, 2016 after the mission was reactivated from hibernation. NEOWISE has been scanning the skies for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that may pose threats to our planet. Since its mission was extended in 2014, NEOWISE has already discovered nine comets and 99 asteroids.
Extremely Rare Comet
Seeing Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE fly by would be a rare opportunity for skygazers because the celestial body won't likely pass by Earth for the next thousands of years. Unlike short period comets such as Halley's, a comet which passes by our planet every 75 to 80 years, it would take C/2016 U1 NEOWISE far longer time before it gets to visit this region of the solar system again.
The object orbits the sun on an undefined hyperbolic orbit that is possibly millions of years long, which means that the comet's rendezvous with Earth may even be the comet's first visit through the inner solar system.
Comet May Be Seen Using A Pair Of Binoculars
Paul Chodas, from NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies, said that there is a good chance that the object will be visible from Earth using a good pair of binoculars. Nonetheless, he noted that there are uncertainties about this since the brightness of the comet is notoriously unpredictable.
"Finding C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be a battle between spying an elusive fuzzy low-contrast coma against a brightening twilight sky. Sweep the suspect area with binoculars or a wide-field telescopic view if possible," advised avid stargazer David Dickinson for those who want to see the celestial object.
From the northern hemisphere, the comet will be in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn during the first week of the year but the object is expected to reach its maximum brightness during the second week of 2017.
It will move farther south everyday and will get closest to the sun inside Mercury's orbit on Jan. 14 before it will head back out of the outer solar system following an orbit that lasts for many, many years.
Year Of Comets
Seeing C/2016 U1 NEOWISE may be a treat for stargazers given that it is extremely rare but it is not the only comet that will make an appearance this year. Astronomers said that 2017 will be a good year for viewing comets. The New Year's Eve comet, Comet 45P, may be visible again on Feb. 11 when it gets closer to Earth.