Rare comet could be visible from Earth in mid-January

The orbit of Comet U1 NEOWISE. Credit: NASA/JPL

The comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is currently venturing through the inner Solar System and because it will be near its perihelion in mid-January, you could view it from Earth using a pair of binoculars.

The comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE was discovered by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space observatory on October 21st, 2016. While astronomers are aware of its whereabouts where it is in the Solar System, the comet has an undefined hyperbolic orbit and chances are that it completes one orbit around the Sun over the course of millions of years. Astronomers also speculate that the comet could be visiting the inner Solar System for the first time.

According to astronomers, the comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is set to break binocular +10th magnitude brightness this week and in the next week it could top +6th magnitude (naked eye brightness) as it nears its perihelion. If that’s the case, one obvious question would then be: what are the chances of visibility?

For those of you who are in possession of a pair of binoculars or a telescope or can make arrangements for one, you can spot the comet pass through the constellations Ophiuchus to Serpens Cauda and Sagittarius in the dawn sky 12 degrees from the Sun at maximum brightness. The best visibility is from the northern hemisphere. Perihelion for Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE occurs on January 13th, 2017 at 0.319 AU from the Sun.

The comet is particularly a difficult early dawn target sitting 25 degrees above the eastern horizon as seen from latitude 30 degrees north about 30 minutes before dawn. This is the best it would get and things won’t be easy from thereon for sky watchers as the comet passes just 12 degrees from the Sun as seen from our Earthly vantage point during the final week of January.

If you are in the southern hemisphere, you may want to hold on for a few days and try to spot the comet on the final day of January when it will be sitting 16 degrees from the Sun in the southern hemisphere constellation of Microscopium. Chances are that the comet will be shining at only +10th magnitude at this point.

If you are in the northern hemisphere, we would recommend you try to view it now. You will see it as 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.