Saturday, November 04, 2023
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Enormous 'devil comet' to dazzle night skies next summer, astronomers say

Scientists and general public will be able to see 12P/Pons-Brooks comet Earth in June 2024

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An image captured on July 25, 2023, shows the comet 12P/Pons-Brooks with its devil horns after an eruption. — Eliot Herman
An image captured on July 25, 2023, shows the comet 12P/Pons-Brooks with its 'devil horns' after an eruption. — Eliot Herman

Astronomers have predicted that Earth will encounter an enormous "devil comet" for the first time in over seven decades, officially named 12P/Pons-Brooks, due to the formation of two ice and gas "horns."

According to experts, the comet has been so unusually bright compared to others that the general public will be able to see it pass through the sky with just binoculars or even the naked eye next year.

Comets, made of dust, frozen gases, ice, and rocks, typically warm and brighten as they approach the sun. However, 12P/Pons-Brooks has been experiencing significant increases in brightness, with two major eruptions in July 2023 and another earlier this month.

This is due to the ice turning into gas and removing dust to form the comet's tail.

"These outbursts … [have] brought this object from being dim enough that you can only really see it with big professional telescopes to, in a couple of cases, something people can see from their backyard," Dr Theodore Kareta, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, according to ABC News.

"There aren't that many comets that have outbursts, these sudden increases in brightness, that are so strong, and even fewer that have them a couple of times during one orbit. It seems like Pons-Brooks ... is just really active," he continued.

The 12P/Pons-Brooks, a comet with an unusual coma, has two "devil horns" around its nucleus, giving it its nickname.

When can you see it pass by Earth?

The comet's visibility may be enhanced by a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, passing over Mexico, the United States, and Canada, possibly allowing it to be very bright and visible with binoculars or the naked eye.

Around the same time, 12P/Pons-Brooks will be at perihelion — the point in the orbit at which it's closest to the sun — on April 21, 2024.

Then 12P/Pons-Brooks will make its closest approach to Earth on June 2, offering scientists and the general public another opportunity to see the comet.

Should you be concerned about the Devil comet?

The 12P/Pons-Brooks, discovered in 1812 by Jean-Louis Pons and spotted again in 1883 by William Robert Brooks, is a Halley-type comet with an orbital period of 20-200 years, passing by Earth every 71 years.

"This means that the last time anyone really observed this thing was in 1954," Kareta said.

"So this is part of the reason that the general public hasn't heard about this thing before. And the last time people were [observing] it, they were doing it with photographic plates, they were doing it with binoculars, they were doing it with their eyes."

Scientists have estimated that it has a diameter of at least 17 kilometres or 10.5 miles and despite its menacing-sounding nickname and size, experts say 12P/Pons-Brooks doesn't pose any threat to humans.

Herman said this event presents a special opportunity to observe a celestial body.

"It's worth getting out there and just looking at it and be awestruck."