2013 dubbed 'The Year of the Comets' kicking off this week
For stargazers, 2013 will unleash two very visible examples of one of your favorite phenomena: comets dragging their thousands of miles of dust across the sky.
Joe Rao, a Hayden Planetarium lecturer, first dubbed this year as "The Year of the Comets" in January when he noted in his weekly New York Times "Sky Watch" that two comets, one this month and another even brighter comet in late November and all of December, would leave their marks.
Comet Pan-STARRS (named for the telescope that discovered it), became easily visible to binoculars holders earlier this week, and will be around for the rest of March and perhaps even for some days in early April.
It's visible in the western sky very close to the horizon immediately after sunset and into the evening. The issue: it's so low near the horizon that buildings and trees will obscure views.
For an interesting recap of Pan-STARRS during the first few days this week and some cool photographs of it, check out the website EarthSky.
As Rao pointed out Jan. 6 in The Times, Pan-STARRS was expected to have a magnitude of zero. We'll let that set the table for the year's even more anticipated comet, ISON (also named for the instrument that first discovered it).
ISON is expected to have a magnitude of minus-12.6, which Rao described as "bright as a full moon and perhaps ... bright enough to glimpse even in the daytime."
"Expectations are for the comet to brighten enormously, perhaps reaching magnitude minus 12.6," Rao wrote. "If it survives, it may be visible as a first-magnitude showpiece for much of December both in the morning and evening sky."
The reason this comet could become so fierce in the sky is the proximity it will be to the sun: just roughly 1 million miles.
"The fierce heating it experiences during this close approach to the sun could turn the comet into a bright naked-eye object," according to a NASA analysis last month.
Here's a look at what some observers are calling "The Comet of the Century" and video that NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft captured of the comet in January as one of the solar system's travelers made its way through space:
Contact Brian X. McCrone at 215-854-2267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @brianxmccrone on Twitter.