Last year was busy for amateur astronomers; there were eclipses, planetary alignments, and approximately a zillion different kinds of moons. (Supermoons, blue moons, and black moons — oh my! ) One kind of phenomenon, though, was conspicuously absent: Comets were hard to spot with the naked eye in 2016, leaving many wondering if there are any comets to watch in 2017. (Spoiler alert: There are. Hurray!)
Similar to asteroids, comets are thought to be ancient space debris reaching up to several miles in diameter. According to NASA, scientists think they originate from beyond the outer planets in our solar system; somehow, these collections of ice and rock end up traveling in orbits around the Sun. Although famous ones like Halley's comet are clearly visible when they pass through the inner solar system, most comets are actually too faint or too small to see with the naked eye. That doesn't mean they're impossible to catch, but you'll need binoculars or even a telescope to spot them.
This brings me to some bad news: Most of the comets anticipated to swing by our planet this year are expected to be hard to see. Boo.
But that doesn't mean you can't find them at all. To increase your chances of finding one of the comets listed below, grab a good pair of binoculars and head somewhere with as little light pollution as you can manage. An unobstructed view of the horizon always helps. Even if you don't spot one, skywatching is a great opportunity to unplug from everyday life, so enjoy the starry night either way.
On Feb. 11, Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova (HMP) will swing by about 7.4 million miles away from Earth. It sounds far, but that's actually relatively close in space-terms. Unfortunately, it's not particularly bright or large; in fact, it's dimmer than expected. EarthSky.org anticipates that it'll be hard to spot, especially for inexperienced astronomers. If you decide to look, though, watch for it in the early morning.
According to Sky and Telescope, Comet Encke has been faintly visible since December, but it's due to brighten in mid-February. You'll still want to bring your binoculars as it only has a magnitude of +9. In the weeks afterward, the comet will swing south and go back to being difficult to see. Look for it in the evening near the Pisces constellation.
Discovered in 1858, the Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak comet is expected to reach naked eye visibility between March 30 and April 3. Look for the comet in the evening, and bring your binoculars just in case.
42015 V2 (Johnson)
This comet was discovered by astronomer Jess Johnson in 2015, so relatively recently. According to Comet Watch, it will be well within binocular viewing brightness in late evenings in May, near the Hercules constellation.
52015 ER61 (PanSTARRS)
This comet actually has an interesting background. When it was discovered in 2015, its tail was so weak that astronomers classified it as a Manx object candidate — essentially, a comet without a tail. (Yep, it's named after the breed of cat.) After a closer look, though, researchers discovered a tail and reclassified it as a comet. According to In-The-Sky.org, comet ER61 will reach its brightest time in early May; look for it in the early morning in the eastern sky.
This celestial object isn't precisely a comet. In fact, the jury is still out on how to classify 2016 WF9 — astronomers only discovered it in November of last year. According to Space.com, the object is dark and about half a mile in diameter, with an orbit that takes 4.9 years to complete. Astronomers think it might have originated as a comet, but it's missing one of a comet's defining features: the release of gas or dust as it nears the Sun.
You won't be able to spot it with an everyday telescope, but it's worth noting for all the doomsday theories surrounding its approach. The comet/asteroid hybrid will pass by Earth On Feb. 25 at a distance of 32 million miles, so it's no threat to our planet. That being said, you might want to take the excuse to go stargazing anyway.