The first of two comets heading toward the sun this year made its closest approach to Earth on Tuesday and will be visible in the northern hemisphere beginning on Thursday.
Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere have been able to see Comet Pan-STARRS for weeks at twilight, even without binoculars or a telescope. The comet came about 161 million kilometers from Earth on Tuesday.
“As Comet Pan-STARRS was setting on the southwestern horizon, its nucleus was visible to the naked eye,” photographer Michael White from Manawatu, New Zealand, wrote to accompany a stunning image of the comet posted on the SpaceWeather.com Web site.
The comet, officially known as Comet C/2011 L4, is believed to be a first-time visitor to Earth after being gravitationally bumped out from the Oort Cloud, a repository of small icy bodies located beyond Pluto.
Northern Hemisphere sky-watchers will get their chance to see the comet from today.
The comet should be visible in the direction of the setting sun just after the sun slips below the horizon.
The best opportunity to see it may be on Wednesday next week, when the comet will appear just beneath a thin crescent moon, astronomers said.
Another celestial visitor is due to arrive in November. If it is not destroyed by the sun, Comet ISON has the potential to be as bright as a full moon.