Best time to spot Devil Comet not till May

The ‘Devil Comet’ is now visible in the night sky and without the aid of binoculars or a telescope, but keen comet-watchers will need to wait a few more weeks for the best view.

Officially designated as 12P/Pons-Brooks, the  Halley-type comet is making a brief visit to our neck of the Solar system – it will be closest to the Sun, ironically, this Sunday – before it shoots out beyond Neptune’s orbit over the next 35 years. It means a child born later this year will have to wait until their 70th birthday to see the Devil’s return.

But it will also be difficult to spot the comet, at least for now.

12P/Pons-Brooks will be chasing sunsets and currently will appear above the western horizon at twilight, offering a few minutes to try and catch a glimpse of the icy ball as it tumbles through space.

“It is far from spectacular [at the moment],” says Professor Jonti Horner, an astronomer from the University of Southern Queensland, who says the Devil Comet currently looks like a fuzzy blob in the sky as it falls below the horizon.

But by May, it should be higher against the night sky for those in the southern hemisphere, giving better viewing.

“The best time to look for it might actually be in the first two weeks of May, when it will be sandwiched between Orion and the western horizon,” Horner says. “Search for it with binoculars, after the Sun has set, and once you’ve found it, then see if you can spot it with the naked eye.

“But this comet will probably be best seen as a photography target – a good long exposure with a camera will show it up much more clearly than how it will appear to the naked eye.”

Devil, Mother of Dragons Comet: What’s in a name?

12P/Pons-Brooks has been spotted by stargazers throughout human history but was ‘discovered’ or at least had its discovery credited to French astronomer Jean-Louis Pons in 1812 and then sighted again by British-American astronomer William Robert Brooks 71 years later.

“It took generations of astronomers to come and go before the comet could be officially named after both astronomers, acknowledging two observations made over 70 years apart,” says Paulo de Souza, Griffith University’s Aerospace Research program leader.

But a marketer will tell you nothing beats good branding, and 12P/Pons-Brooks has it now. The catchy ‘devil’ name is a more recent addition, describing an event last year where its trail appeared divided, as if two ‘horns’ were protruding from the frigid nucleus of ice, rock and dust.

Some have also called it the ‘Mother of Dragons’ comet, a reference to the popular fantasy series Game of Thrones and the cryovolcanic nature of the 30km wide comet, which sees it spew ice-cold water, ammonia and methane from its nucleus.

“There were short-term increases in the comet’s brightness, accompanied by an asymmetry in the coma, the diffuse area surrounding the nucleus,” says Paddy McGee, an astronomer at the University of Adelaide’s High-Energy Astrophysics Group. “There were two thin, brighter regions with an apparent gap between them, looking somewhat like two horns trailing the nucleus, depending on one’s visual interpretation.

“These may have been due to temporary enhancements in ejection of material from the nucleus in one or more isolated locations.”

More comets to come

Annoyed that 70 years is too long to wait for the Devil Comet to return? You’d better book the end of October this year.

That’s when a more recently identified comet will be making its closest approach to Earth.

Officially called C/2023 A3, this comet hasn’t got a nickname, and it may not need one either. Identified by the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory in China and ATLAS space survey in South Africa last year, C/2023 A3 might be visible between September and October this year.

If it is, you’ll want to have a look. While its perihelion – the point at which the comet is closest to the sun – will place it inside the orbit of Mercury, its outbound journey will see it take a lengthy sabbatical into the Oort Cloud, a region of icy comets surrounding our solar system. Short of having a time machine to jump forward more than a million years to see if C/2023 returns or not, neither you nor whatever your descendants evolve into will see it again.

“C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan-ATLAS) is currently swinging sunward and may turn out to be really spectacular in October,” says Horner.

“So perhaps consider 12P/Pons-Brooks to be a good warm-up before a potentially spectacular main event later this year.”

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