The brightest comet of 2023 is still intact after making a hairpin turn around the sun over the weekend.
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 made its close pass by the sun on Sept. 17 before being flung back out to deep space.
Under dark skies, the comet is easily visible with the naked eye. Unfortunately, as it recedes to the outer limits of the solar system, it is best viewed low on the horizon just after sunset, when it can be washed out by fading daylight.
A number of sky watchers and astrophotographers are reporting having luck imaging it using a digital camera on a tripod taking exposures that last at least a few seconds.
However, it’s encouraging that Nishimura survived its encounter with the sun and there is always a chance it could brighten as it passes by Earth’s orbit.
How to catch the comet
This comet is trickier to see than other bright comets of the recent pass due to its low angle to the horizon, which is really a reflection of how close it passed by the sun. This is why it’s been most visible before sunrise on its way toward the sun and now after sunset as it recedes into space.
“It’s really best seen with binoculars or a telescope,” Alison Klesman, who holds a doctorate in astronomy, wrote for Astronomy.com. “But through those optics, it will dazzle.”
You can search 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’s very difficult to know what the future holds for a comet. They can travel for centuries from the edge of the solar system to make a single orbit around the sun. At the same time, they are fragile things with a tendency to disintegrate as they pass through the inner solar system. They’ve even been known to crash into Jupiter or the sun along the way. The dinosaurs may also have had a close encounter with one many millions of years ago.
The comet has met some serious resistance during its journey in the form of blasts of charged particles and plasma issuing forth from a tumultuous sun. Observers like astrophotographer Michael Jaeger (see above) watched earlier this month as a solar storm engulfed the comet and appeared to blow a portion of its tail away for a moment.
Here’s a more dramatic example that was captured by NASA in 2007 of Comet Encke having its tail briefly stolen:
“Researchers call this a disconnection event; it’s caused by a CME (or fast solar wind stream) hitting the comet,” former NASA astronomer Tony Phillips wrote at Spaceweather.com.
CME stands for coronal mass ejection, which is an eruption from the outer layers of the sun that often accompanies a solar flare. Think of it as a very strong gust of energetic wind coursing through space and causing electromagnetic chaos. This is the same force that causes auroras to light up the skies when it collides with Earth’s magnetic field. It can also influence other things in space, like asteroids and comets.
The sun is currently building toward the peak of its roughly 11-year solar cycle, which means more frequent flares and CMEs.