Forget about the movie theater, television screen and Broadway stages. The best show of the year may be right over your head late this fall and into early 2014.
There are still quite a few ifs that could get in the way, but if certain conditions occur folks on Earth will get a stellar show from Comet ISON, which was discovered last September by a pair of amateur astronomers from Russia who spotted it on images taken a telescope that is part of the worldwide International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON.
The potential is there for Comet ISON to be brighter than a full moon, which means it would be visible at daytime as well.
Experts say Comet ISON has the potential to light up in the sky in a way that hasn't been seen since 1680, when one passed by that was so bright its tail could be seen in the daytime sky. The newly discovered comet is so similar to that one, in fact, that some scientists speculate both were from the same frozen parent in the Oort Cloud, a band of icy and rocky objects 50,000 times further from the sun than Earth.
So, we may be in for a great show, if ...
— Comet ISON doesn't fail to produce a tail of ice particles that we can see;
— The comet doesn't disintegrate as it closes in on the sun. Scientists with NASA's Near Earth Object Program say it will get as close as 1.2 million miles from the center of the sun as it whips around our star and heads back out to the edge of the solar system.
But if ISON hangs together and behaves like astronomers think it will, at the least we should be able to see a one-in-five-centuries sight in the sky, one that experts say likely will be visible without the need of a telescope or even binoculars. And that show could last from sometime in October all the way into January 2014.
In fact, this year could end up being remembered as the "year of the comets." In March, Comet Pan-STARRS is expected to show up in the night skies.
We may get an early idea of whether ISON's will live up to lofty expectations. Curiosity, which is roaming the Martian landscape, may take a look at it in September as it whizzes by the Red Planet.
Historically, people have seen comets as omen of bad things, so there's no telling what fanciful disaster tales about either or both comets will be dreamed up by those disappointed by missing out on the Mayan end-of-the-world "prediction" last month. Our guess is some parts of the Internet rumor mill are already abuzz with speculation on what Comet ISON's appearance "really means."
The majority of us, however, will simply be looking for an amazing visual experience. Let's hope ISON doesn't disappoint.