Comet ISON, being a comet, behaves unpredictably, and the hoped for sky wonder may not manifest
Few things in life have the mass impact on the collective psyche of humankind of a great comet. I’m sure we all remember the disappointment of Halley and Kohoutek, and the unexpected drama of Hayakate and Hale-Bopp, and for those in the southern hemisphere, the amazing McNaught and Lovejoy.
Comet McNaught above, Comet Lovejoy below – the Southern Hemisphere got lucky.
But, alas, Comet Ison may be a fizzler. Or, it may still fire off as a December spectacle, a pre-solstice comet that will unite the most heavily populated hemisphere of this planet in raised heads, awe, and – and whatever it is that the human mind does when something from outside enters the collective awareness and draws the raw arcs of physics on the sky.
The next few weeks will undoubtedly give us our best shot at ISON. To see it this week, you’ll need to venture out in the early morning, around 4 a.m. local time, and look toward the constellation Leo. You won’t see the comet quite yet with the eye alone — it’s still climbing in brightness — but a pair of binoculars or a small telescope will show it under a dark sky, away from the polluting light of cities.
The circumstances are good as the comet continues to brighten. Around 4 a.m., head outside and look to the east to see Leo rising — a simple star map like that in Astronomy magazine will help you spot the constellation, which looks like a question mark or sickle, along with a bright triangle of stars closer to the horizon. This week the comet is inching along to the east, underneath Leo’s bright triangle of stars. It’s currently near the border of the constellations Leo and Virgo.
Regulus is the brightest star in the sickle of Leo, and the bright ruddy “star” southeast of it is actually the planet Mars. The brightest star in the triangle of Leo is Denebola, and that’s where you’ll start to find the comet. For the next week and a half, the comet will be lazing eastward between the stars Sigma in Leo and Eta in Virgo, and the accompanying map will show its path relative to those stars.
As we continue into November, Mars will be rising early in the morning, but ISON will be moving farther and farther from Mars each day. However, Mars will be a good guide for finding ISON as it continues to brighten. Hopefully, by mid-November, ISON may be visible to the naked eye very low above the Eastern horizon, as it rises a couple hours before sunrise. On November 15 it will be located roughly 30 degrees away (three hand widths away) from the sun. ISON will continue getting closer to the sun each day, so there will only be a very brief and shrinking window of time each morning between when it rises and when the sunrise makes the sky too bright to see ISON, if it becomes visible to the naked eye at all before perihelion, its closest approach to the sun on November 28.
If ISON does not brighten enough before perihelion to be seen with the naked eye, it is likely that the days after perihelion, probably around the second or third week of December, will be your best opportunity to see ISON. At that time, it will still be a reasonably bright object, but will be far enough away from the sun that it will rise while the sky is still dark in the hours before sunrise each day. Additionally, because ISON does not orbit in the same plane as the planets, after perihelion, it’s orbit will take it higher in the sky, allowing it to be seen for a short time, low in the northwest sky just after sunset each day.
On Christmas, ISON will rise early in the morning, and should still be visible to the naked eye, although it may require a little effort to find it. Binoculars, or the zoom lens on a tripod-mounted camera should help you in your effort to see ISON on Christmas morning. Since little ones are likely to be up by 6am with the anticipation of what Santa has brought them, if skies are clear, it might be a nice present to show them the “Christmas Comet” before the sun rises.