Mark your calendars for late 2013, that's when possibly one of the brightest comets in history will appear in the sky. Astronomers are predicting the new comet may be so brilliant it could shine many times brighter than the full Moon. If it does become that bright it will be visible both day and night.
The Russian astronomers Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski of the International Scientific Optical Network discovered the comet in September 2012.
Catalogued as comet 2012 S1 (C/2012 S1), amateur stargazers with powerful telescopes can spot it: a tiny glowing smudge within the Zodaical constellation of Cancer.
The path, size and orbit of a comet are the primary guidelines for predicting just how bright a comet might become as it approaches the sun and whips about it before heading back out of the solar system. By every indication comet 2012 S1 promises to deliver a spectacular show. Scientists calculate the comet is two-miles wide.
Excited astronomers explain that despite its current distance from the sun the comet is already far brighter than most. Add to that its orbit: scientists calculate that C/2012 S1 is almost eerily on the same trajectory as one of the most amazing comets ever recorded in human history known as the Great Comet of 1680.
Bright comets still strike fear into some
For much of Mankind's history, comets were considers evil omens, signs of impending doom, or harbingers of war. Even today in the 21st Century indigenous peoples scattered across the globe in such remote areas as the mountains of Papua New Guinea and the Amazonian tropical rain forests react with strong emotions when bright comets appear in the sky.
In more developed regions, most people take them in stride, although when an event that occurs in the sky is truly spectacular some vestiges of old superstitions can emerge. Astrologers also tend to make much out of approaching comets.
As for just how spectacular this comet could be, space expert Samra, of the H.R. MacMillan Space Center in Vancouver, Canada told National Geographic that "If it lives up to expectations, this comet may be one of the brightest in history."
Often the "if" is a pretty big one and the reason is there are so many variables. Some comets that arrived in the 20th Century were touted as big events, but when they actually reached the sun they fizzled out and were barely visible to the naked eye.
Others like Hale-Bopp, the Great Comet of 1997, actually put on a longer, better show than the Great Comet of 1811. And Hale-Bopp was a naked-eye object for an incredible 18 months.
Peter Grego at Astronomy Now notes, "With a perihelion passage of less than two million kilometres from the Sun on 28 November 2013, current predictions are of an object that will dazzle the eye at up to magnitude —16. That's far brighter than the full Moon. If predictions hold true then C/2012 S1 will certainly be one of the greatest comets in human history." It could shine brighter than any other celestial object except the sun.
A second bright comet also due
Yet that's not the only bright comet expected during 2013. While C/2012 S1 is expected to be a comet for the millenniums, another comet, , is expected to be visible during March 2013. It may be bright enough to see during the day too.
That comet was spotted in June 2012 by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS astronomy team using a mammoth digital camera incorporating 1,400 megapixels. The team caught sight of the comet while it was still a whopping 700 million miles from Earth.