NASA’s NEOWISE mission has already found some celestial objects traveling towards Earth and may be flying by in our neighborhood, and definitely a comet that can be seen with binoculars next week.
An object called 2016 WF9 was detected by the NEOWISE project on Nov. 27, 2016. It’s in an orbit that takes it on a scenic tour of our solar system. At its farthest distance from the sun, it approaches Jupiter’s orbit.
2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on Feb. 25, 2017. At a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million kilometers) from Earth, this pass will not bring it particularly close. The trajectory of 2016 WF9 is well understood, and the object is not a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.
A different object, discovered by NEOWISE a month earlier, is more clearly a comet, releasing dust as it nears the sun. This comet, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, "has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
As seen from the northern hemisphere during the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn. It is moving farther south each day and it will reach its closest point to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, on Jan. 14, before heading back out to the outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit lasting thousands of years. While it will be visible to skywatchers at Earth, it is not considered a threat to our planet either.
NEOWISE is the asteroid-and-comet-hunting portion of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. After discovering more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission, NEOWISE was brought out of hibernation in December of 2013 to find and learn more about asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth. If 2016 WF9 turns out to be a comet, it would be the 10th discovered since reactivation. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the 100th discovered since reactivation.
What NEOWISE scientists do know is that 2016 WF9 is relatively large: roughly 0.3 to 0.6 mile (0.5 to 1 kilometer) across. It is also rather dark, reflecting only a few percent of the light that falls on its surface. This body resembles a comet in its reflectivity and orbit, but appears to lack the characteristic dust and gas cloud that defines a comet.