Russian astronomers have discovered a comet, named C/2012 S1, which is heading our way. It is scheduled to fly by Earth in December 2013. It is expected to be the brightest visitor to our solar system in over a century. Astronomers believe the comet will be considerably brighter than Halley’s Comet (1986) and Hale-Bopp (1997) and may even be brighter than the moon – negative magnitudes maybe. C/2012 S1 could be visible for up to three months. And then again, maybe not.
The comet was discovered on 9/25/12 via observations from the Santel reflector at the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) and hence, it is being called “Comet ISON” or C/2012 S1. C/2012 S1 will hit its perihelion (closest to the Sun) on 11/28/2013 and will be closest to Earth on 12/26/2013. Right now it is beyond the orbit of Jupiter but by November 2013 is should be visible to the naked eye and should remain visible until January 2014.
Astronomers believe it will become a rather spectacular sight in the night sky, assuming it does not disintegrate before then, but comets are notoriously fickle. A comet can break up at any time, particularly as it approaches the Sun. Its trajectory could take it farther from the Sun than excepted too and if so, there’s no telling where it will end up (they are not worried about it hitting Earth though).
Karl Battams of the Sungazer Comet Project told Spaceweather.com not to get too excited yet:
“Comets can and often do fizzle out! 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.”
Or as David Levy, of Comet Shoemaker-Levy fame, said comets are like cats: they have tales and they do whatever they want. All we really know at this point is that it is big. Really big.
UPDATE 2/6/2013: NASA just released footage shot from NASA’s Deep Impact probe, shows comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) as it hurtles through space 493 million miles away from the probe. Check it out below: