San Diegans will have a great opportunity to view a bright comet in late 2013. The comet, known as ISON was discovered in September 2012 by two Russian amateur astronomers and will likely be bright enough to be seen with the naked eye even in the daytime. When the comet was discovered, it was centered close to the star Polaris (the North Star) and was very dim. Its path resembles that of a bright comet seen throughout the northern hemisphere in 1680 and it is speculated that ISON may have once been part of this comet.
In August, the comet should begin to be visible under dark, clear skies in late August to early September, 2013 to those using small telescopes or maybe even binoculars. In October, the comet should become visible to the naked eye if one looks in the right part of the sky. Look for it in the constellation Leo and near Mars. It should become brighter as the month goes on.
In November and December, the comet should be more visible as it passes 800,000 miles from the sun. There is speculation that it might be brighter than the moon in the night sky at that time, but there is no way to currently asses its future brightness. It should be visible both in the morning and evening sky looking towards the directions of the rising and setting sun. During December, the comet should be visible to most people in the world and not just those in the northern hemisphere. Assuming it survives its close encounter with the sun, the comet may, again, be visible as it heads back in the direction of Polaris where it was first sighted.
To see and photograph this comet in the San Diego area, it is best to find an area far from city lights. Best places to view astronomical events include the middle of the Anza-Borrego Desert and the Laguna Mountains. Be aware that thousands of other people may also be out in the same areas during the peak of the comet’s brightness. Though dates for “comet viewing” events are not available at this time, local observatories may hold exhibits and public events as the time for the comet to pass through gets closer.
On January 19th, 2013, the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center will present an exhibition that includes information on comets, including ISON, called “Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids and Meteors!” Their feature IMAX film will be “Cosmic Collisions”. The exhibit will run until April 28th. Look for more events and exhibits from colleges and science centers later in the year.