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New Year’s comet: How to watch

The comet won’t be returning to Earth for thousands of years.

Comets are beautiful. This is an image of a comet called C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy.
Joel Tonyan / Flickr
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

If you’re out very late to celebrate the new year (and why shouldn’t you be?), look up at the southeastern sky.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the hours just before dawn throughout the first weeks of January, you may be able to see a comet, near the horizon, heralding in the new year.

The comet’s name is C/2016 U1, and it was discovered just a few months ago by NEOWISE, NASA’s program for spotting asteroids. (It poses no threat to the Earth, NASA reports. Sorry, fans of “Sweet Meteor O’ Death.”)

NASA’s scientists don’t yet know if the comet will be visible to the naked eye “because a comet's brightness is notoriously unpredictable," Paul Chodas, a manager at NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies said in a press statement. (This is because they are constantly shedding material as they approach the heat of the sun.) But there’s a “good chance” you could see it through binoculars, he said.

Finding C/2016 U1 NEOWISE might be tricky — it will be a faint object near the horizon “against a brightening twilight sky,” Universe Today advises. “Sweep the suspect area with binoculars or a wide-field telescopic view if possible.”

The orbit of C/2016 U1 NEOWISE.
NASA JPL via Universe Today

NASA says the comet should stay visible until around January 14. That’s when it will be at its closest to the sun. After that, it will start its return voyage to the end of the solar system. Universe Today reports it will be brightest during the second week of January. So if you can spot it on New Year’s Eve, look out for it then.

Once C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is gone, don’t expect to ever see this comet again. According to NASA, its orbit is thousands of years long.

If you can’t find C/2016 U1 NEOWISE on New Year’s Eve exactly, there’s another comet to look out for. It’s called Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, and reports it will be visible through binoculars or a telescope near the crescent moon. NASA explains where to look out for Comet 45P in this video.

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