As avid stargazers, I’m sure we all dream of discovering our very own comet. But how about three? Japanese space photographer, Hideo Nishimua lends his name to a trio of discoveries, Comet Nakamura-Nishimura-Machholz (C/1994 N1), Comet Nishimura (C/2021 O1) and Comet Nishimura (C/2023 P1). But it is the latter comet we’re most interested in today.
Discovered earlier this year (August 11), Hideo caught the latest Comet Nishimura when taking long-exposure photographs of the sky with his digital camera. And now, this evening (or technically early next morning, on September 12), C/2023 P1 will be visible from Earth to the naked eye. It means you don’t need to dust off that old telescope from the attic just yet!
It will be hurtling past Earth at 240,000 miles per hour in the early hours of Tuesday morning, between 4 and 6 am. But you’ll want to get up early (or stay up late!) for this because it’s likely the only chance you’ll get to see Comet Nishimura in the flesh. It takes the comet around 437 years to lap our solar system. By comparison, it takes the legendary Halley’s Comet a mere 76 years. (It takes Earth one year, but I hope you know that already.)
You may be able to see Comet Nakamura in the sky before then, however, if you look northeast near Venus. Particularly between the hour after sunset and the hour before dawn. But the early hours of Tuesday still stand as your best chance without a telescope or camera. Some astrophysicists even think the comet might break up after it passes Earth, as it approaches close to the Sun. So this really could be once in a lifetime sighting.
What is a comet?
To put it simply, a comet is a big ball of ice and dirt that orbits the Sun millions of miles away, left over from the formation of the solar system. A comet’s iconic tail comes from the ice being vaporized by the Sun, which lets gas escape and drags dust particles along with it. Don’t confuse comets with meteors, however, they’re very different (well not that much). Meteors are grains of dust or rock that burn up entering Earth’s atmosphere.