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A comet in the west after sunset?

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is in the west after sunset now. It’s too faint to see with the eye alone, but some photographers might catch it.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková on January 1, 2017, via theskylive.com.

It’s true that Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is in the west after sunset now. It has been there for some weeks, and recently it has brightened. Can you see it? Well … are you an experienced observer, used to finding faint objects in the sky? If not, probably not. Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is currently estimated at 6th magnitude. That’s barely within the limit for visibility with the unaided eye. A diffuse object, like a comet, at that brightness will be even tougher to see. You will need an extremely dark sky (a tough sky to find in the twilight direction, shortly after sunset) and optical aid (at least binoculars, probably a telescope) to see this comet.

There is an extremely bright object in the west after sunset now. It’s the planet Venus. Many will likely look westward after sunset, see Venus, and think they’re seeing the comet.

You need this for the new year! EarthSky moon calendar for 2017

If you look westward after sunset, you’ll easily see a very bright starlike object. That’s the planet Venus. Mars is nearby. The moon is sweeping past these planets on the first few evenings of 2017.

The comet passed closest to the sun on December 31, 2016. On that date, it was about 0.083 Astronomical Units away from Earth — more than 7 million miles away – or about 30 times more than the distance of Earth’s moon.

By the way, we didn’t see very many astrophotos of the comet’s sweep near the moon on New Year’s Eve, despite the fact that it was widely touted by (non-astronomy) media in the U.S. But at least one Japanese astrophotographer (@w_coast) got a gorgeous shot of the moon and comet on January 1, which he posted to Twitter (and a shout-out to @cosmos4u on Twitter for pointing it out).

Gerald Rhemann captured this photo of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková – using a telescope – on December 22 from Farm Tivoli in Namibia, Africa. Used with permission. Read more about this image.

Bottom line: Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is in the west after sunset now. It requires optical aid to be seen.

Deborah Byrd