Bright comet Nishimura is now visible in the pre-dawn sky
The promising comet of 2023 will pass by our planet next week, and it’s bright enough to see with the naked eye.
Comet C/2023 P1 (Nishimura) was first spotted last month by Hideo Nishimura, an amateur astronomer in Japan, using only a digital camera setup and a lot of skill. It is scheduled to pass near Earth on September 12, then orbit the sun on September 17 before being returned to deep space.
It’s a bit difficult to see the comet at the moment because it’s best seen in a dark sky, but its location should be watched 60 to 90 minutes before dawn, when the sky isn’t completely dark. A number of skywatchers and astrophotographers have reported being fortunate enough to photograph it with a digital camera on a tripod to take exposures lasting at least a few seconds.
Nishimura is expected to get brighter as he approaches in the next few days, if he stays alive for long.
So far, the comet has encountered some serious resistance in the form of explosions of charged particles and plasma from the turbulent Sun. Observers like astrophotographer Michael Geiger (see above) watched on Saturday as a solar storm swept through the comet and appeared to blow part of its tail away for a moment.
Here is a more dramatic example captured by NASA in 2007 of Comet Encke having its tail briefly stolen:
“This event is called the ‘separation event’ by the researchers,” former NASA astronomer Tony Phillips wrote at Spaceweather.com. “Nishimura’s tail has grown back since then — but it may not last for long. More coronal emission are on the way.”
CME stands for coronal mass ejection, an eruption from the sun’s outer layers that often accompanies a solar flare. Think of it as a very powerful gust of energetic winds hurtling through space causing electromagnetic chaos. This is the same force that makes the aurora borealis light up the sky when it collides with Earth’s magnetic field. It can also affect other things in space, such as asteroids and comets.
The sun is currently heading towards the peak of its roughly 11-year solar cycle, which means more coronal ejections and flares. At least two of the projectiles mentioned by Phillips were released from the solar corona on Tuesday, exploding in the direction of Comet Nishimura.
How to catch a comet
All this harsh space weather can be a little painful for skywatchers hoping to see the comet with the naked eye. And although the comet is still approaching Earth, now might be the perfect time to start looking for it. Nishimura was expected to be bright enough to see it on September 8. In the northern hemisphere, it will appear near the horizon, making its location a little more difficult.
“It really is better to see it with binoculars or a telescope,” Alison Klisman, Ph.D. in astronomy, wrote to Astronomy.com. “But with that optic, you’ll be dazzled.”
And you can look for the comet in the constellation Leo an hour or two before sunrise. You can use apps like Stellarium, Star Walk, or TheSkyLive to help locate it.
It is very difficult to know what the future holds for a comet. They can travel many centuries from the edge of the solar system to make one orbit around the sun. Meanwhile, they are fragile objects that tend to disintegrate as they pass through the inner solar system. They are also known to collide with Jupiter or the Sun along the way. Dinosaurs, too, may have had a close encounter with one of these creatures several million years ago.
So, with all the turmoil the sun has been throwing at you lately, it’s a good idea to get up early to try and see Nishimura for yourself while she’s still holding on. good luck!