Look to the sky for New Year's Eve comet

NASA's NEOWISE mission has detected one definite comet that will pass by Earth in the first week of 2017, as well as a second celestial object, which could be either a comet or an asteroid, that will also fly by. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Apart from the traditional fireworks and illuminated ball in Times Square, look for a blazing comet to light the night sky on New Year’s Eve.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said a comet may be visible as people welcome in 2017 on Saturday.

“Say farewell to 2016 in cosmic style by looking up to see the #NewYearsEve #comet on December 31,” the laboratory said in a Wednesday Instagram post.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova will be near the moon on New Year's Eve, NASA said.

The comet, NASA said, was expected to appear in the western horizon on Dec. 15 and had a bluish-green head by Dec. 21. The comet is a periodic comet, which returns to the inner solar system about every 5 years.

Dr. David Reitzel, an astronomical lecturer at Griffith Observatory in California, said the comet is visible now using a telescope or strong binoculars. On Saturday, people should point their instruments to the west just after sunset to catch a glimpse of the comet, which will be just to the left of the crescent moon. For a good view, go somewhere away from residential lights.

It looks like 2017 may be a good year for comet spotting. NASA said people will be able to view several throughout the year. In fact, Reitzel said people can take a peak at Comet 45P when it's closer to Earth — about 7.5 million miles away — on Feb. 11.

This comet will zoom by Earth on New Year's Eve

A comet streaking across the night sky on New Year’s Eve will help welcome in 2017. The comet — called Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková — only comes around about every five years. It won’t be visible to the naked eye for skywatchers looking up at the stars on Saturday night, but it can be seen with the help of strong binoculars or a telescope if you know where to look.

Comet 45P has already been in our cosmic neighborhood this month — it appeared low on the western horizon on Dec. 15 and again made an appearance on the 21st. On New Year’s Eve, it will pass by the crescent moon as we say goodbye to 2016, according to NASA.

The best chance to catch a glimpse is to look through a telescope towards the west just after sunset on Dec. 31.

The astronomy site EarthSky.org notes that while the comet is passing relatively close to Earth in cosmic terms, it’s still a very safe distance away — more than 7 million miles away, or about 30 times the distance from here to the moon.

Comet 45P is what’s known as a “periodic” comet, which is a “previously identified comet that’s on a return visit,” NASA stated. It makes a return visit to the inner solar system every 5.25 years, so expect to see it again in about half a decade.

This comet’s New Year’s party isn’t the only celestial event happening in the sky that night. Mars and Neptune will also appear very close to one another, with the planets’ red and blue-green hues offering a seasonally appropriate color contrast as the year comes to a close.

'New Year's Eve Comet' and More: Three Flybys Will Kick Off 2017 New Year

The "New Year's Eve Comet" that's been streaking across the sky this December isn't the only otherworldly visitor ringing in the new year in Earth's neighborhood.

Wednesday (Dec. 28), NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tweeted a video about Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, which has been growing more prominent in the sky since Dec. 15. On New Year's Eve, the comet will be visible through a telescope or binoculars near the crescent moon, sporting a blueish-green head and thin, fan-shaped tail, NASA researchers said.

But there will likely be two more comets (or a comet and an asteroid) in store for skywatchers in early 2017, NASA said. (Plus, Comet Catalina will still be visible with magnification in the morning sky.) [Best Close Encounters of the Comet Kind]

The first comet of the New Year, called C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, was detected by NASA's NEOWISE mission in October and will likely be visible from Earth's Northern Hemisphere during the first week of 2017.

"It is moving farther south each day, and it will reach its closest point to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, on Jan. 14, before heading back out to the outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit lasting thousands of years," NASA officials said in a statement.

Although skywatchers using a "good pair of binoculars" have a chance of spotting C/2016 U1 NEOWISE as it passes by Earth, visibility depends greatly on the comet's unpredictable brightness, Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement. Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is not considered to be a threat to the planet, the statement said.

Borderline Comet

The NEOWISE mission also detected another celestial object, called 2016 WF9, on Nov. 27, 2016. The object is a dark and relatively large body, with a diameter of about 0.3 to 0.6 miles (0.5 to 1 kilometers).

"It's in an orbit that takes it on a scenic tour of our solar system. At its farthest distance from the sun, it approaches Jupiter's orbit," NASA officials said in the statement. "Over the course of 4.9 Earth-years, it travels inward, passing under the main asteroid belt and the orbit of Mars until it swings just inside Earth's own orbit. After that, it heads back toward the outer solar system."

Scientists have yet to determine whether the object is a comet or asteroid. Based on its orbital pattern, the object may have once been a comet or it could have originated in the main asteroid belt. However, unlike comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, the object doesn't appear to be releasing any gas or dust as it nears the sun, which is a defining characteristic of comets, NASA officials said.

"2016 WF9 could have cometary origins," James "Gerbs" Bauer, deputy principal investigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement. "This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one."

The object is expected to approach Earth's orbit on Feb. 25, 2017, at a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million km). Since this is not a particularly close approach, 2016 WF9 is not considered a threat to Earth, NASA officials said.

NEOWISE was launched in 2009 as part of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission to detect and study comets and asteroids. In 2011, the space telescope was decommissioned for a brief time before it was brought out of hibernation in 2013.

"If 2016 WF9 turns out to be a comet, it would be the 10th discovered since [NEOWISE's] reactivation," NASA officials said. "If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the 100th discovered since reactivation."

Forget the fireworks -- look for a comet in the sky on New Year's Eve

Even if you're not a fan of New Year's Eve fireworks, you'll have another reason to look to the skies.

NASA says as we ring in the new year, a comet will near the moon and be visible to those looking west.
But here's the catch - you'll need a pair of binoculars to see it.
NASA says comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, named after the astronomers who discovered it in 1948, takes 5.25 years to complete its orbit.

This year, it was first visible on the low western horizon on December 15.

It will reach its perihelion -- the point of orbit when an object is closest to the sun -- on New Year's Day, making its orbit around the sun and disappearing from visibility from Earth. It will be viewable, and reach its maximum brightness, once it swings back around the sun in 2017.

The comet's maximum brightness will be about magnitude 6 -- the equivalent of looking at a faint star with the naked eye.

Comet 45p will will kick off a year of better comet viewing than 2016, NASA says.
Two meteor showers -- the Geminds and the Ursids -- began this month.

NASA says the best time to see the Geminids, which it says is a more "reliable" meteor shower, will be next year, as the full moon won't be as bright and interfering (cough cough, supermoons).

The comet's presence on New Year's -- a celebration of the year to come and possibilities ahead -- is a stark juxtaposition from the typical symbolism of comets as harbingers of destruction.
Ancient cultures often viewed them as messages from the gods.
Halley's Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses and even the Black Death.

And whether it's in movies or cults, comets today are still seen as things that can bring about the end of the world.

But those who are worried about this particular comet bringing Earth's destruction -- don't fret. 45p will be a good 0.083 astronomical units away -- which is more than 7 million miles.

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