You Can See a Rare, Bright Comet This Month. Will It Be Visible During the Solar Eclipse?

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks is a frigid, volcanic ice ball that won’t pass near Earth again until 2095

a comet streaks diagonally across the frame, with its bright green nucleus at the bottom left
Roughly every 71 years, the bright periodic comet 12P/Pons-Brooks passes by the sun and Earth. At its brightest, it can be seen with the naked eye in fairly dark skies. Nielander via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

A bright comet that only appears once—maybe twice—in a lifetime is currently on its way through our solar system. Called 12P/Pons-Brooks, the city-sized comet has already made headlines for bright outbursts over the past several months. And now, some astronomers are speculating it could appear in the darkened sky during the total solar eclipse on April 8, provided the comet is glowing brightly enough.

Right now, the comet can only be seen with binoculars or a telescope. But in the coming weeks, it might become visible with the naked eye. Here’s what you need to know about the rare “dirty snowball.”

What is Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks?

Measuring roughly 18 miles in diameter, Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks is a ball of dust, rock and ice that orbits the sun once roughly every 71 years. Because its orbital period falls between 20 and 200 years, it is known as a Halley-type comet, calling to mind the famous comet that last passed Earth in 1986 and left enough debris to give us several meteor showers today.

But Pons-Brooks isn’t your standard comet—it’s a cold volcano. It intermittently lets out blasts of gas in frigid conditions, known as cryovolcanic activity, and these outbursts can lead it to glow more brightly. After one such explosion last July, the coma—or cloud of vapor and dust around the comet’s rocky core—expanded to more than 7,000 times the size of the comet itself, Richard Miles of the British Astronomical Association told Live Science’s Harry Baker at the time.

This outburst caused the coma to take on a horseshoe-like shape, leading some to term it the “horned” comet—or even the “devil’s comet.”

The comet’s many trips around the sun have a long history of astounding human observers. Chinese astronomers may have spotted Pons-Brooks in 1385, and an Italian astronomer may have glimpsed it in 1457. But its two-part name comes from observations made in 1812 and 1883, first by French astronomer Jean-Louis Pons and then by American astronomer William Brooks.

How to see the ‘horned’ comet

This month, Pons-Brooks has appeared to move through the constellation Andromeda, and now, it’s setting out on a path past Pisces and Aries.

To spot it, look low on the northwestern horizon after sunset. As the month goes on, the comet will set earlier, so the best time to look for it will be just after it gets dark.

While Pons-Brooks is a bright comet, it will most easily be seen in dark skies. “If you have a half-decent pair of binoculars, certainly attempt to look for it with those,” Robert Massey, the deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis. “You want to avoid haze, you want to avoid moonlight, you want to avoid light pollution.”

As it makes its way across the sky, Pons-Brooks will appear to pass by a few notable celestial objects, making it easier to find on certain evenings. For instance, it will appear near the star Hamal, the brightest in the constellation Aries, on March 31. And from April 12 to 14, it can be seen very close to Jupiter. Regardless, using a night sky app can help you get oriented and find where the comet should be.

But the best time to see Pons-Brooks will be around April 21, when it will pass its nearest point to the sun, known as perihelion, and shine the most brightly. Look for the comet in the constellation Taurus.

Then, as the icy ball keeps moving, it will come even closer to Earth, crossing the point in its path nearest to our planet on June 2 and appearing in the constellation Lepus. But by that time, it will only be visible in the Southern Hemisphere, per New Scientist’s Abigail Beall.

Will the comet be visible during the solar eclipse?

During totality on April 8, skies will darken to a level resembling twilight, making some bright objects visible at a time they normally would be obscured by the sun. At this time, Pons-Brooks will lie above and to the left of the sun, near Jupiter.

Specifically, it should be about 21 degrees away from the sun, or roughly the amount of sky covered by both your fists held at arm’s length.

The comet has potential to appear during the eclipse, but some experts caution it might not be easily visible.

“I don’t want people to get disappointed if they don’t see the comet,” Rosita Kokotanekova, a planetary scientist at the Institute of Astronomy and National Astronomical Observatory at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, says to Scientific American’s Meghan Bartels. “If people expect to see something extremely bright on a fully dark sky, I think that unless we’re very [lucky] with an outburst, it will be more challenging than that.”

Amateur astronomer and comet expert John Bortle takes an even less optimistic view about seeing the comet during totality, per’s Joe Rao. “I would think that much more a fantasy than anything else,” he tells the publication.

But in a sense, that might be for the best. While it could be fun to try to spot the comet during the eclipse, the spectacular phenomenon lasts for only a few minutes. During that short, rare moment, it might be most valuable to just focus on the sun and its ethereal corona.

“Whether you want to tear your eyes away from the eclipsed sun to look around is up to you,” writes EarthSky’s Kelly Kizer Whitt. “No matter how many minutes totality lasts, it will feel like it’s flying by.”

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