National Geographic News
The comet  C 168P/Hergenrother.

Comet C 168P/Hergenrother (pictured October 15) rockets toward its close encounter with comet Catalina.

Image courtesy Slooh Space Camera

Andrew Fazekas

for National Geographic News

Published October 23, 2012

Like rocket ships passing in the night, a pair of comets will appear to whiz past each other in the sky Tuesday. Starting at 5 p.m. ET, armchair astronomers can catch the show live online via observatories on a Canary Islands (map) volcano.

(Also see "New Comet Discovered—May Become 'One of Brightest in History.'")

Though invisible to the naked eye, comet 168P/Hergenrother and comet C/2012 J1 (Catalina)—discovered just last May—have both been faintly visible through backyard telescopes for the past few weeks. As they approach the sun, more of their ice is vaporizing, adding to their hazy, reflective envelopes of gas and dust; producing characteristic comet tails; and boosting their brightness.

Video: Watch Live Feed of Comet Rendezvous



"Two comets with developed tails, visibly heading in opposite directions and changing position while we watch and 'missing' each other by a mere three-quarters of one degree—I simply can't recall ever seeing this happen!" enthused Bob Berman, an astronomer and columnist with Astronomy magazine.

That three-quarter-degree separation—roughly the width of the full moon's disk, as seen via the naked eye—is a fortunate illusion of perspective for sky-watchers. In reality the void between the two comets is about twice as long as Earth's distance from the sun.

(Related: How big a threat are comets to Earth?)

Via a related brick-and-mortar observatory along the slopes of Teide volcano on the Spanish island of Tenerife, the Web-based SLOOH Space Camera will broadcast footage of the two icy interlopers. Adding to the occasion will be real-time discussions with astronomy experts, including Berman.

Around the world, scientists will be watching the sky show to learn more about the physical properties and origins of the comets—though that's not the first thing on Berman's mind.

"The prospect of seeing two comets simultaneously is immensely attractive," he said, "not for the science, or any other rational reason, but because of the sheer visceral impact it may have."

More: Read "The Age of Comets" from National Geographic magazine >>



Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »