A rare comet, named C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will fly by in January. The comet has a good chance of becoming visible through a pair of binoculars. As seen from the northern hemisphere during the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be in the southern sky shortly before dawn. The comet is moving farther south each day and will reach its closest point to the Sun on January 14. After that, the comet will head back to the outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit that will last thousands of years.
Comet C/2006 U1 NEOWISE can be seen with a pair of binoculars
The comet is not considered a threat to our planet. Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) on October 21, 2016. NEOWISE also spotted an object called ‘2016 WF9’ on Nov 27, 2016. However, at a distance of nearly 51 million kilometers from Earth, this comet’s pass is not particularly close. The nature of 2016 WF9 is not confirmed either – it could turn out to be an asteroid or a comet. The other object – C/2016 U1 NEOWISE – is most definitely a comet and will pass close enough to be observed with a pair of binoculars.
NEOWISE is the asteroid-and-comet-hunting portion of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The project had discovered more than 34,000 asteroids during its first mission. After that, the project was put on hibernation and revived in December 2014. It was brought out of hibernation to find and learn more about asteroids and comets that pose an impact hazard to Earth.
More About 2016 WF9
Although 2016 WF9 fly by cannot be observed, the newly discovered celestial object is interesting in many ways. For one, the 2016 WF9 is relatively large – roughly 0.3 to 0.6 miles across. It is quite dark, reflecting only a few percent of the light that falls on its surface and resembles a comet in its reflectivity and orbit. The WF9, however, lacks the characteristic dust and gas clouds that define a comet. James Bauer, Deputy Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says – “2016 WF9 could have cometary origins. This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.” 2016 WF9 is in an orbit that takes it on a scenic tour of our solar system. Over the course of 4.9 Earth-years, 2016 WF9 travels inward, passing under the main asteroid belt and the orbit of Mars until it swings just inside Earth’s orbit. It will approach Earth’s orbit on Feb 25, 2017. NASA has analyzed the trajectory of this comet and has concluded that it poses no threat to Earth.