Article image

Comet Nishimura will approach Earth so closely that it should be visible to the naked eye

In the vast expanse of our universe, objects come and go, providing us with glimpses into the mysteries of outer space. Comet Nishimura has recently caught the attention of the scientific community as a “potentially interstellar” celestial body.

The comet is expected to slingshot around the Sun in early September, making a fascinating appearance in our sky. At a speed of 240,000 miles per hour, Nishimura is predicted to approach Earth as close as 78 million miles on September 12th at 10 am BST.

Dirty snowball 

This close encounter could make Comet Nishimura visible to the naked eye, appearing as a star-like blob with a signature tail. This phenomenon is often referred to as the visual representation of a “dirty snowball.”

The terminology “dirty snowball” arises from the nature of comets, which are essentially aggregates of ice, dust, and rocky material. Unlike asteroids that are primarily composed of metals and rocks, comets undergo a unique transformation when they draw near to the Sun. 

As they approach the star, the icy and dusty components begin to vaporize, a process called sublimation. This results in the formation of a distinctive tail and a cloudy halo, a feature known as a coma.

Interstellar origin of Comet Nishimura

Yet, what makes Comet Nishimura truly captivating is its potential interstellar origin. This speculation arises from its trajectory and the fact that it was discovered at a great distance from the sun. 

The discovery of the comet is credited to Hideo Nishimura of Japan, who managed to spot the celestial object using a telephoto lens mounted on a Canon camera on August 12, 2023. 

The comet has also graced an image snapped by a photographer at June Lake, California, presenting itself as a vivid green blob with a brilliant tail.

May be visible for days 

In a recent blog post, NASA reflected on the visibility of Comet Nishimura, saying that it should be seen with the naked eye in the few days either side of its close approach.

“Will Comet Nishimura become visible to the unaided eye? Given the unpredictability of comets, no one can say for sure, but it currently seems like a good bet,” said NASA. The post suggests that the comet’s luminosity might increase as it dives towards the sun in early September.

Slingshot around the Sun

Another intriguing aspect of this comet’s journey is its impending “slingshot” around the Sun – a dramatic maneuver orchestrated by our star’s immense gravitational pull. This will send the comet hurtling back into the darkness of space, away from our sight. 

However, this close proximity to the Sun, especially within the orbit of Mercury, presents a precarious situation. There’s a possibility that the comet’s nucleus, a solid core made of rock, dust, and frozen gases, might disintegrate.

“The comet will get so close to the Sun — inside the orbit of planet Mercury — that its nucleus may break up,” said NASA.

Comet Nishimura is currently moving in front of the constellation Gemini the Twins, low in the dawn sky. The media outlet says the comet was hiding in the Sun’s glare before it was captured in images. 

Comet Nishimura’s optimal visibility 

EarthSky recommends that enthusiasts use a small telescope for observing comet Nishimura in the remaining days of August, considering the inherent risks associated with its solar proximity. 

The comet’s angular proximity to the Sun also means optimal visibility would be around sunset or sunrise, capturing the right reflection of sunlight.

Interstellar objects 

Interstellar objects offer an intriguing look into far-off solar systems. They present an opportunity to study celestial bodies untouched by our Sun’s influence. 

To date, only three interstellar objects have been identified. This includes a meteor that struck Earth in 2014, only to be confirmed as interstellar by the US Space Command eight years later. This was followed by Oumuamua in 2017 and Comet Borisov in 2019. 

Interestingly, while Oumuamua was first labeled a comet, it was later reclassified as an asteroid due to its absence of a coma. On the other hand, 2I/Borisov holds the distinction of being one of the most “pristine comets” ever observed, as announced by scientists in 2021.

For now, the mystery of Comet Nishimura’s true origins persists. Further orbital calculations may shed more light on its journey. If confirmed as being interstellar, it would solidify its place in the history of astronomy.

More about Comets

Comets, often dubbed the “dirty snowballs” of space, captivate the imaginations of skywatchers and scientists alike. These celestial travelers, with their brilliant tails and ancient origins, hold secrets to our solar system’s early days.

What is a comet?

A comet is an icy body in space that releases gas and dust when it gets close to the Sun. This release forms a glowing coma (a cloud of gas and dust around the comet’s nucleus) and sometimes a tail. Comets typically consist of water ice, frozen gases, dust, and rocky material.

Anatomy of a comet

  • Nucleus: The solid, core part of a comet. It’s usually a mix of ice and dust.
  • Coma: As the comet nears the Sun, heat causes the nucleus to release gas and dust, forming a glowing halo.
  • Tail: Not all comets develop tails, but those that do can have one or even two. They always point away from the Sun due to the solar wind and radiation pressure.

Where do comets come from?

There are two primary reservoirs of comets: the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.

  • Kuiper Belt: Located just beyond Neptune’s orbit, the Kuiper Belt houses short-period comets. These comets take less than 200 years to orbit the Sun.
  • Oort Cloud: Much farther out, almost a light-year from the Sun, the Oort Cloud is a vast sphere of icy objects. It’s the home of long-period comets, which can take more than 200 years for a single orbit.

Famous comets

  • Halley’s Comet: Perhaps the most famous of all, Halley’s Comet visits us about every 76 years. The last time it swung by Earth was in 1986, so mark your calendars for 2062!
  • Comet Hale-Bopp: This comet gave a spectacular show in 1997. It was one of the brightest comets seen in decades.

The life cycle of a comet

Comets begin their journey in the cold outer reaches of our solar system. When their orbit brings them close to the Sun, they become active, releasing gas and dust.

Over many orbits, a comet’s ices can vaporize completely, leaving just a rocky, inactive nucleus behind. Some comets might crash into planets or the Sun, while others might get ejected from the solar system altogether.

Why study comets?

Comets are like time capsules. They contain primordial material from the dawn of our solar system. By studying them, we gain insights into the early solar system and the conditions that led to the formation of planets, including Earth.

Comets in culture

Throughout history, comets have inspired awe and superstition. Many cultures saw them as omens. Today, they remain a popular subject in art, literature, and film.

Comets, with their icy tails and ancient origins, offer a dazzling display in our night sky and invaluable knowledge about our universe. Each time one graces our skies, it’s a reminder of the wonders and mysteries the cosmos holds.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day