Will Comet ISON put on a show from the southern hemisphere near the end of 2013?

October 9, 2012

Blocking the Sun_Nick Lomb

Blocking out the Sun with a post. Photo Nick Lomb

Note added 15 October 2013: please also see more recent post on viewing possibilities.

There is a lot of interest in a newly discovered comet called Comet ISON. In late November 2013 this comet will pass very close to the Sun and may then be bright enough to be seen in the daytime. A few weeks later the comet’s outward trajectory will bring it to just 0.4 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. This visit from Comet ISON has been extensively discussed by commentators from the northern hemisphere, but what will we see from Australia?

The comet was discovered on 24 September by two amateur astronomers in Belarus and Russia. As it took them a day to confirm that the object was a comet, the organisation International Scientific Optical Network with which they are associated was credited with the discovery. For more of the story see the Sky & Telescope article.

Newtons diagram of the path of comet 1680 from the Principia

Newton’s drawing of the path of the bright comet seen in 1680 is included in his famous Principia. Here D represents the Sun and other letters indicate the observed position of the comet at various dates. This image is from an 1871 reprint of the last edition of the Principia on archive.org

The path of comet ISON is believed to be very similar to that of the comet of 1680. This bright comet had an important role in the history of science for Isaac Newton carefully plotted its path and established that it was a parabola as required under his Universal Law of Gravitation. Newton’s success in establishing the path of this comet inspired Edmond Halley to look at the paths of past comets and so led to the discovery of Halley’s Comet.

Comet ISON orbit from JPL Small Bodies Browser_near perihelionA

The path of Comet ISON in the inner solar system is shown in orange when above the plane of the ecliptic and in yellow below. The position of the comet is shown a day after its closest approach to the Sun. Courtesy JPL

Comet ISON will pass just 1.2 million km from the Sun on 29 November 2013 (Australian time). From Earth it will be about one degree from the Sun. At that time it may appear sufficiently bright to be visible in daytime, however, comets are notoriously fickle and this one may not perform as expected. There will be updates on this blog as the date approaches. It will probably be worth trying to look in the vicinity of the Sun a day or two before closest approach and for a few days after.

NOTE that it is always dangerous to look directly at the Sun. Do not use telescopes or binoculars to search for the comet, just your unaided eyes and block the Sun with a post or other convenient object. Take extreme care!

In the week or two before closest approach to the Sun or perihelion the comet will be visible low in the east before sunrise. It should be getting brighter, but also closer to the horizon each morning. If the comet grows a visible tail, it should be pointing upwards, away from the rising Sun.

After perihelion as the comet moves towards the Earth we will not be able to get much of a look from the southern hemisphere. It will be neither an evening nor a morning object for in the evenings the comet will set before the Sun and in the mornings it will rise with the Sun.

Assuming the comet does not fade away like some comets of the past, for those of us in the southern hemisphere the best chance to see Comet ISON will be from mid to late November 2013 in the mornings before sunrise and in the daytime about the date of perihelion on 29 November 2013. As indicated above, watch this blog for updates and take extreme care when looking in the direction of the Sun.

Note added 15 October 2013: please also see more recent post on viewing possibilities.

150 responses to “Will Comet ISON put on a show from the southern hemisphere near the end of 2013?

  • Hey just adding in I also looked at that same bright light. It’s huge and extremely bright. I can’t recall ever seeing Venus vibrant and glowing. My father said he had not seen it like that before either. It’s weird.im on your side what us with it.

    • Hello Phill. Yet it is Venus and it has been this bright before, for example, in late April 2012 and in December 2010. For a discussion on why Venus appears so bright at present, see this blog post.

  • What am I looking at in the night sky which is a brilliant light in the south west skies. I thought it was Ison, but apparently it’s not. Surely it’s not Venus?
    I am not an avid sky watcher, but do like to look at the stars in the night from my home, and particularly show my visitors who sometimes do not have that option in their country.
    Hate to have to admit to my facebook I am in error, but need to know what I am looking at. Thanks. Raine

  • What am I looking at toward the south west which is so bright that it even shines behind a cloud. I thought it was Ison????
    I live in the western suburbs by the sea but I am looking towards the south west and the “comet” is very bright.
    I am trying to convince family I have another notch in my cosmic belt.
    Thanks stargazers if you can enlighten me.
    Raine

  • We observed an incredibly bright comet heading south at around 7:45pm tonight. We watched it for 10 to 15 minutes till it disappeared over the horizon. It was still daylight with the setting sun so bright only a couple of photos turned out ok. We are in Grafton NSW. I would guess it was a comet cause it was not burning up. How do I send you a photo? It was amazing!

    • Hello Annie. I am afraid it is too late to see Comet ISON as it disintegrated during its close approach to the Sun at the end of November 2013. But, never mind, there is still plenty to see in the evening sky such as the planets Venus and Jupiter, the Moon and the bright stars of the constellation of Orion.

    • Hello Mark. Yes, some parts of the comet seem to have survived the close approach to the Sun though as yet no one knows if there will be anything to see in the northern hemisphere sky over the next few nights. Whatever happens though it can no longer be seen from the southern hemisphere.

  • On the 29th of november,I observed comet Ison disintegrate before my own naked eyes.So, what is the fuss is all about? The comet was moving fast and then it started to disintegrate.So, we might see the remnant of it or may be it completely disintegrated.Astronomy with all its advance technology cannot tell what exactly happened to Ison.They have to wait a few more days before they can say what happened to ison.May be Ison has completely disintegrated and swallowed by the heat of the sun.And there,the life of this inanimate object ended on the 29th november 13 and I did witnessed it.

    • Hello Rina. To astronomers studying the Sun Comet ISON has been fascinating as it probed a region to which we cannot send spacecraft for it is too close to the Sun. Once all the data are analysed over the next few weeks and months scientists may know more about temperatures, magnetic fields and the solar wind in the inner parts of the Sun’s atmosphere.

    • Thanks Nick for the update on Ison, good to know, I can tell my mate who’s a bit of a fruitloop to go stick his head bck in the sand lol but in having said that are there any other comets out there heading our way? Cheers Christine

      • Hello Christine. As far as we know there are no potentially bright comets approaching the Sun, but one could be discovered at any time.

  • Hello;

    The post stated

    “Comet ISON will be from mid to late November 2013 in the mornings before sunrise and in the daytime about the date of perihelion on 29 November 2013. As indicated above, watch this blog for updates and take extreme care when looking in the direction of the Sun”

    Yet, in the comments section it is stated that the comet will not be viewable from the Southern Hemisphere.

    Can you please tell us if we can see it or not – I live in Tasmania ?

    Thank you, WilloW

    • Hello WilloW. Some parts of the comet seem to have survived the close approach to the Sun though as yet no one knows if there will be anything left to see in the northern hemisphere sky over the next few nights. Whatever happens though it can no longer be seen from the southern hemisphere including Tasmania.

      • Thanks Nick.

        As an amateur I always find it difficult determining whether people are referring to observations in the southern, northern or both hemispheres. The American-based sites seem to forget there’s a hemisphere other than there own 🙂 Cheers…

    • Hello Jacques. Some parts of the comet seem to have survived the close approach to the Sun though as yet no one knows if there will be anything left to see in the northern hemisphere sky over the next few nights. Whatever happens though it can no longer be seen from the southern hemisphere including South Africa.

  • Sadly I live in the country of NSW Australia and today there has been thunderstorms so sadly I can’t see it through the clouds. I was so looking forward to ISON, I’m 12 years old and my dream is to become an astronomer so I’m quite disappointed to not be able to see it as I have told everybody in my class about it. 🙁

    • Hello PLT123. Over the last few weeks Comet ISON has been hard to see from Australia and now that it has passes the Sun it can only be seen, if at all, from the northern hemisphere. Don’t worry though we live in fortunate times when we can follow the comet through images from spacecraft and from serious amateur astronomers over the internet – keep an eye on the spaceweather website.

  • We saw what looked like a fireball or meteor today with a long tail also and it lasted for around 30 mins where it appeared to burn up.

    • Hello Pam. You do not give any details about time, direction, location or a description so I cannot even take a guess at what you saw. However, whatever you saw was not fireball or meteor as these can only be seen for a few seconds.

    • Hello Andrew. No you could not have seen the comet as it was too close to the Sun. Observations could only be made today by spacecraft and these observations suggest that the comet has largely but not completely disintegrated.

  • I don’t know where u get visible in the east.
    What appears to be a comet is visible due west
    About 11 pm has been in about same spot for
    Last 2 nights looks like a jumbo jet with all
    Landing lights on but nit moving .

    • Hello Tony. You are looking at the planet Venus that has been setting in the west at about 11 pm or a little later since late October.

  • I live in Rockhampton and also saw the light arund 8.15 going north to south quickly across the sky. It did look like a falling star but shot straight across the sky southward and had a as stated below had distinctive tail of smaller lights trailing behind.

    • Thanks for your reports Amanda, Mandy and Wendy. What you saw seems to have been a bright fireball – a piece of rock from space hitting the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. There is another report by Greg from the Noosa hinterland on the Lights in the Sky page. Part of the rock may well have survived, but unless it hit someone’s head, car or house we are unlikely to find out.

  • Hi
    I live at Emu Park on the coast in Central Queensland. At about 8.15pm last night I saw a very bright – what I thought may have been a falling star – but it travelled across the whole sky from left to right (north to south), there was a large bright ‘ball’ and it had a distict ‘tail’. It was spectacular! And much larger than a falling star. If it was the comet, what a privellige to see it!

    • Hello Amanda. I suspect that you saw the International Space Station that went right over Emu Park yesterday evening and would have been bright and noticeable. The pass by the ISS on 27 November 2013 was from 7:28 pm to 7:33 pm and it travelled from south-west to the north-east.

      • > Hi Nick, it was too big to be the ISS and was travelling from North to South – West. It was extremely bright and had a long tail of light behind it. I’ve seen the ISS travel past previously and this was nothing like I’ve seen before. Whatever it was it was a unique spectical!

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