What can we expect now that the ‘devil comet’ 12P/Pons-Brooks is visible in Australia?

What can we expect now that the 'devil comet' 12P/Pons-Brooks is visible in Australia?

If you have an interest in space, you’ve probably heard about the “devil comet” that has been captivating observers in the northern hemisphere for the past few weeks. Now, it’s time for the southern hemisphere to enjoy the view as comet 12P/Pons–Brooks becomes visible.

Before you get too excited, let me manage your expectations. Comet Pons–Brooks can be seen with the naked eye, but only if you know where to look. It will appear as a fuzzy glowing patch in the sky, offering some incredible photo opportunities in the coming weeks.

What makes people call it the “devil comet”?

Named after two astronomers who discovered it independently in the 19th century, Comet 12P/Pons–Brooks (its official name) was last visible in 1954.

It takes approximately 71 years to orbit the Sun, making its appearances in the inner Solar System a rare treat for us on Earth.

At its core, Pons–Brooks is a dirty snowball with a diameter of around 34 kilometers. Astronomers spotted it in 2020 as it swung back towards us in its orbit, nearly 1.8 billion kilometers away from the Sun and dormant.

As the comet moved closer to the Sun, its surface temperature increased, causing it to become “active”. The exposed ices on its surface began to turn directly from solid to gas, creating a tail made of dust and debris blown away from the Sun by the solar wind.

However, comet 12P/Pons–Brooks didn’t become active smoothly. It experienced several significant outbursts, emitting large amounts of gas and dust in a short period of time before settling down again.

During the first major outburst on July 20, 2023, the comet brightened by a factor of a hundred and released an estimated ten million metric tons of dust and ice.

The resulting dust, gas, and debris were pushed away from the Sun by the solar wind, giving the comet an unusual appearance. Some people thought it resembled the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, while others saw a vaguely demonic figure with horns, leading to the nickname “devil comet”.

Where and when should you look?

Confirmed sightings of 12P/Pons–Brooks have recently been reported from various locations in Australia. Currently, it is visible low in the western sky after sunset, although it may be difficult to spot due to the glow of twilight.

Over the next few weeks, the comet will gradually climb higher in the evening sky. You can refer to videos showing the comet’s location at 6:30pm from mid-April to mid-June in Toowoomba and Melbourne.

Keep in mind that the comet is a diffuse object, not a single point of light. The head is where it is brightest, centered on its nucleus. The comet’s tails point away from the Sun and will rise upwards from the western horizon in the evening sky.

Although visible with the naked eye, it is recommended to use binoculars to locate the comet. Wait until the Sun is well below the horizon, and once you find the blurry patch of the comet, you can try spotting it with the naked eye.

The most exciting time to observe Pons–Brooks will be during the first two weeks of May when it passes underneath the constellation Orion. This period will be ideal for astrophotography, as the comet’s tails will cut through Orion, shining alongside the nebulae in Orion’s body.

But wait, there’s more!

While comet 12P/Pons–Brooks is currently in the spotlight, another potentially spectacular comet is moving towards the Sun and promises an amazing show later this year.

Comet C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan-ATLAS) was discovered in January 2023, and astronomers believe it has the potential to become truly dazzling.

Comet behavior is difficult to predict, but current estimates suggest that Tsuchinshan-ATLAS will be as bright as the brightest stars in late September and early October. It will pass almost directly between Earth and the Sun during that time and might even be visible in broad daylight.

In the days following this alignment, the comet will gradually become visible in the evening sky and could be up to a hundred times brighter than Pons–Brooks at its best.

So, with some luck, the current appearance of 12P/Pons–Brooks is just the warm-up, and an even more spectacular show awaits later this year. Fingers crossed!