As the world tries to see and photograph Comet NEOWISE (or check-out this week’s extra-bright rings of Saturn), a comet similar to Halley’s comet—last seen in 1954—has been found by astronomers using a telescope in Arizona.
They’ve calculated that comet 12P/Pons-Brooks will return to the Solar System in April 2024—which is when a total solar eclipse will next be observable from Mexico, the US and Canada.
The news comes just as Comet NEOWISE is glowing in the night skies for skywatchers in the northern hemisphere.
What is comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, and could it really be visible during the “Great North American Eclipse?”
What is comet 12P/Pons-Brooks and how was it found?
Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks—first discovered in 1812—visits the inner Solar System every 71 years.
It’s the second most sighted comet to Halley’s Comet.
It was last seen in May 1954 during its last visit, but scientists using the 4.3 m Lowell Discovery Telescope in Arizona have just “recovered” it about 12 astronomical units (au) from the Sun.
That’s out near the orbit of Saturn. The furthest it ever gets is out to the orbit of Neptune.
The scientists estimate that comet 12P/Pons-Brooks will once again enter the inner Solar System during April 2024.
After that, it’s 2095 until its next appearance.
How does it compare to Comet NEOWISE?
These are two quite different comets. Whereas Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks is a short-period comet that visits us every 71 years, Comet NEOWISE is a long-period comet that won’t come back to the inner Solar System for about another 7,000 years.
So catch it while you can!
How does it compare to Halley’s comet?
While comet 12P/Pons-Brooks has an orbital period of 71 years, it’s 75 years for Halley’s Comet—also called 1P/Halley.
“It’s certainly not as famous as Halley’s Comet—which has been observed since 240 B.C.—but it’s still a pretty bright comet with historical significance,” said Quanzhi Ye, lead author. “It has been associated with sightings dating back to 1385 A.D. and possibly 245 A.D., and only Halley itself (plus comet 153P/Ikeya-Zhang if we discount the possible 245 A.D. sighting) has been observed for a longer time.”
Could comet 12P/Pons-Brooks be a naked-eye comet in April 2024?
With the “Great North American Eclipse” on April 8, 2024, this is sure to be a talking point in the weeks before that massive event. Might it be observable during the brief darkness of totality?
“Under the current trend, 12P will only reach +5 mag at perihelion in April 2024—so it will most likely not be a naked-eye comet if it follows the trend,” said Quanzhi. “However, comets do whatever they please and 12P is known to harbor occasional outbursts during its previous apparitions, so anything is possible—we just need an outburst at the right time.”
Halley’s Comet is consistently described as being the only naked-eye comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime.
It’s thought that comet 12P/Pons-Brooks causes the κ-Draconids in December, and possibly the Aquilids in June, though both are very minor meteor showers.
Although it seems unlikely to be visible during totality of April 8, 2024, eclipse-chasers after something truly spectacular would be wise to keep their eye on coming to 12p/ponds Brooks as it gets closer to the inner Solar System.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.