Comets, asteroids and other Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are a fascinating sight to behold, if you can manage to spot one in the night sky.
Many will remember the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in the 1990s, or much more recently, the beautiful sight of Comet NEOWISE that made headlines around the world and enticed us all to take a look up at the evening sky.
Asteroid Vesta, for example, is one member of the Asteroid Belt that can also be seen, provided you know where and when to look.
But how do you spot comets and asteroids in the night sky? Find out in our guide below which comets and asteroids are visible tonight and over the coming weeks.
January 2022: Comet C/2019 L3 Atlas, Comet 19P/Borrelly
Comet C/2019 L3 Atlas is well placed in January and will be best seen at the start and end of the month when the Moon is absent.
Reaching perihelion on 10 January, Comet C/2019 L3 Atlas is expected to reach mag. +9.7, making it a viable target for larger binoculars or a small telescope.
L3 Atlas was discovered by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) facility at Haleakala, Hawaii on 10 June 2019.
Around 18th magnitude, it has brightened since then. It is located in the constellation of Gemini, tracking along the northern edge of the stick figure representing the body of the twin Castor.
In terms of brightness, C/2019 L3 Atlas is expected to stay at mag. +9.7 for the first half of the month, dropping a tenth of a magnitude during the second half.
If the sky is clear and the Moon is out of the way, it should be easy to keep tabs on.
At January’s start, the comet is 3˚ north of mag. +4.4 Tau (τ) Geminorum, midway between mag. +1.9 Castor (Alpha (α) Geminorum) and mag. +3.4 Theta (θ) Geminorum.
It follows a curving path southwest, ending the month 2˚ north of Mebsuta (Epsilon (ε) Geminorum). The full track length over the month is around 10˚.
Slightly brighter than 10th magnitude, L3 Atlas will make a great imaging target for wide-field and close-up study.
C/2019 L3 Atlas isn’t the only bright comet visible this month. 19P Borrelly is moving northeast as it approaches perihelion on 2 February.
Comet 19P/Borrelly is potentially visible using binoculars and should be a great target for small telescopes.
It joins comet C/2019 L3 ATLAS in January’s night sky to produce a great cometary feast.
The comet is currently moving northeast and brightening as it goes.
Starting the month in Cetus, not far from mag. +2.0 Deneb Kaitos (Beta (β) Ceti), the comet remains inside the Cetus boundary for much of the month, managing to slip into Pisces at the end of January.
On the evening of 1 January, 19P sits 5˚ west of Deneb Kaitos, visible after evening twilight has subsided and true darkness has descended, just after 18:00 UT.
This places the comet slightly to the west of south, around 19˚ up as seen from the centre of the UK.
By the month’s end, 19P is predicted to have brightened to mag. +8.9 and, located 3˚ southwest of mag. +4.9 Mu (μ) Piscium on the evening of 31 January, its altitude will have improved too, the comet appearing about 34˚ up as true darkness arrives.
This is despite the region of sky containing Borrelly having naturally drifted further west of south as darkness falls.
We know about Comet 19P/Borrelly thanks to a visit by the Deep Space 1 probe in 2001.
Its nucleus is 8km x 4km x 4km and it follows an elliptical orbit, which takes it out as far as 5.83 AU from the Sun and in as close as 1.35 AU, the distance the comet will be from the Sun at perihelion on 1 February.
It takes Borrelly 6.8 years to make one orbit. Its closest approach to Earth is 55 million km.
December 2021: C/2019 L3 Atlas, 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 4P/Faye
There are three reasonably bright comets and one wild card in December 2021.
Comets 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 4P/Faye and C/2019 L3 Atlas are all located in the general region centred on Gemini, highest around 00:30 UT on 1 December, 23:30 UT mid-month and 22:30 UT by the month’s end.
Comets 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko
67P is the periodic comet visited by the Rosetta spacecraft from 2014 to 2016.
It reached perihelion on 2 November when it was brightest at mag. +10.7. During December, 67P fades from mag. +10.9 to +11.7.
The comet is relatively easy to find as it never wanders far from mag. +4.0 Iota (ι) Cancri, staying within 5˚ of the star throughout December.
Periodic comet 4P/Faye reached perihelion on 8 September and like 67P is now fading.
On 1 December it is predicted to be at mag. +11.9, not significantly dimmer than its mag. +11.5 perihelion peak.
By the month’s end, it will have dimmed to mag. +12.5. 4P/Faye follows a gently curving track to the west in December, in an area of sky about 9˚ to the south of Alhena (Gamma (ζ) Geminorum).
Comet C/2019 L3 Atlas
Comet C/2019 L3 Atlas is the brightest of the three, starting the month at mag. +9.9 and ending at mag. +9.7.
Its December track starts conveniently 5˚ to the north of Castor (Alpha (α) Geminorum) and from there follows an almost linear path southwest, moving just 7˚ throughout the month.
Actually, all three comets have relatively short paths this month, making it both easier to keep track of these objects and photograph them.
Comet C/2021 A1 Leonard
The other comet to keep an eye on in December is Leonard, which seems to be continually brightening and which you can find out about via our guide to Comet C/2021 A1 Leonard.
November 2021: Comet 67P
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is the comet made famous by ESA’s spectacular Rosetta mission. In November 2021 it can be found passing from Gemini into Cancer.
At 00:00 UT on 1 November, 67P is located 2° southwest of mag. +3.8 Iota (ι) Geminorum, and predicted to appear at integrated magnitude +10.7.
On the night of 3/4 November it passes approximately one degree south of Iota Geminorum heading east.
It lies 40 arcminutes southwest of mag. +4.1 Upsilon (υ) Geminorum at 00:00 UT on 5 November, and southeast of the star by a similar distance at 00:00 UT on the 6 November.
At 00:00 UT on 8 November it lies 1.6° south of Pollux (Beta (β) Geminorum).
The comet then passes close to mag. 5.0 Phi (φ) Geminorum on the nights of 9/10 and 10/11 November and 30 arcminutes south of mag. +5.1 Chi (χ) Cancri on 18/19 November.
67P can be found 2° south of mag. +4.0 Iota (ι) Cancri during the morning of 30 November.
The comet remains at a fairly constant brightness throughout the month and is predicted to dim marginally to mag. +10.9 by its end.
67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. This is a class of periodic comets with orbital periods less than 20 years and orbital inclinations of less than 30°.
Its orbit takes it out as far as 5.63 AU from the Sun at aphelion and in as close as 1.243 AU at perihelion. The next perihelion occurs on 2 November.
The comet was discovered by Klim Ivanovich Churyumov while examining a photo taken by Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko on 11 September 1969.
October 2021: Comet 4P/Faye
October 2021 offers a great opportunity to observe Comet 4P/Faye as it passes slightly to the east of Betelgeuse in Orion.
The comet puts on a faint but steady performance in October, passing through a region of sky across Orion’s Club and through to the southwest corner of Gemini.
4P/Faye’s magnitude holds steady at +11.5 all month.
Starting its path 9˚ north and slightly east of Betelgeuse (Alpha (α) Orionis), the comet tracks east in October, gaining a more southeast trajectory at the month’s end to position it a little over a degree south of mag. +3.3 Xi (ξ) Geminorum.
As a handy guide to sky distance, the apparent separation of Rigel (Beta (β) Orionis) and Mintaka (Delta (δ) Orionis) is 9˚, while the gap between Xi and 30 Geminorum – the mag. +4.5 star slightly northwest of Xi – is half a degree.
4P/Faye is a periodic comet with an orbital period of 7.55 years. It’s a Jupiter-family comet, a class which describes comets with a period of less than 20 years and orbital inclinations less than 30˚.
Faye’s orbit takes it in as close as 1.666 AU from the Sun at perihelion and out as far as 6.026 AU at aphelion. The last perihelion occurred on 8 September 2021.
4P/Faye is named after Hervé Faye, a French astronomer who first observed the comet on 23 November 1843, with confirmation coming on the 25th.
The discovery was made possible because the comet was passing close to Earth at the time, making it appear bright.
This month, 4P/Faye is best seen with medium to large telescopes. Smaller instruments should be able to pick it up in a dark sky.
Its position north of Orion is favourable, this area of sky reaching greatest altitude in the early hours of the morning.
September 2021: minor planet 2 Pallas
Minor planet 2 Pallas is, as its prefix number suggests, the second minor planet discovered. It’s one of the ‘big four’ asteroids which includes 1 Ceres (now re-classified as a dwarf planet), 3 Juno and 4 Vesta.
They were discovered in close proximity to one another between 1 January 1801 and 29 March 1807 (for more on Vesta, read our guide to the brilliantly named ‘Celestial Police‘).
Amazingly, 5 Astraea wasn’t discovered until 8 December 1845, breaking a long period where it was thought that 1-4 were the only such objects.
To date, around one million asteroids have been observed and recorded. The four largest asteroids (in size order) are Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea.
The third discovery, 3 Juno, is the 10th largest. 2 Pallas is third largest with a mean diameter around 513km.
Pallas’s discovery is attributed to Heinrich Olbers on 28 March 1802, but it was a close call.
Charles Messier recorded it 23 years earlier while tracking a comet, but he thought it was a star and its identity remained hidden.
In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered 1 Ceres. While initially believing it to be a comet, its motion was unlike any he’d seen before.
After months being lost from sight, Ceres was recovered by Baron von Zach and Olbers later in 1801.
It was while attempting to relocate Ceres a few months later, that Olbers found Pallas which was nearby in the sky.
It spends much of the month in Pisces, skipping into Aquarius at the end. Starting the month at mag. +8.8 and ending at mag. +8.9, Pallas is an easy target for a small scope.
It’s a B-type asteroid, part of the C-type class, but having a spectral bias towards blue.
August 2021: asteroid 89 Julia
It’s a stony or siliceous asteroid (S-type) discovered in 1866 by French astronomer Édouard Stephan and it’s named after Saint Julia of Corsica.
89 Julia will appear shining at mag. +9.0 near the Water Jar asterism. The Water Jar, or ‘Steering Wheel’, is formed of four similar brightness stars in the northern regions of Aquarius.
It sits south of the triangle that forms the upside-down head of Pegasus and to the west of the faint Circlet asterism in Pisces.
The four stars of the Water Jar asterism are:
- Mag. +4.3 Zeta (ζ) Aquarii in the centre
- Mag. +4.4 to +4.7 variable star Pi (π) Aquarii to the north
- Mag. +4.0 Eta (η) Aquarii to the east
- Mag. +3.8 Gamma (γ) Aquarii to the west
The asterism lies 5˚ east of mag. +2.9 Sadalmelik (Alpha (α) Aquarii) and is quite easy to locate.
At the start of August, 89 Julia is located a little over 1.5˚ south-southeast of Gamma Aquarii and from here tracks west-northwest to pass one-third of a degree south of Sadalmelik on the night of 21/22 August.
On 1 August, Julia shines at mag. +9.5, as mentioned above, brightening to mag. +9.0 on 25 August, when it reaches opposition. It then retains this brightness through to the month’s end.
Consequently, 89 Julia may be observed with a small telescope throughout August. To confirm an observation, image or sketch the region in which you think the asteroid is lurking over the course of several nights.
If you’re looking in the correct place, the asteroid’s star-like dot will appear to move.
July 2021: minor planet 12 Victoria
Minor planet 12 Victoria reaches opposition in July 2021. On 1 July it shines at mag. +9.3, slowly brightening over the rest of the month to a peak of mag. +8.8 at opposition on 30 July.
This makes it an ideal object to find and track with a small telescope.
On 1 July 12 Victoria is located in northwest Aquarius, close to the border with Aquila. This region lacks any really bright stars: the best guides are the mag. +4.4 star 3 Aquarii and 70 Aquilae at mag. +4.9.
On 1 July 12 Victoria sits two-thirds of the way along a line from 3 Aquarii towards 70 Aquliae. Its path arcs as it tracks northwest.
At its brightest, near the month’s close, it lies about 2.5˚ east and a fraction south of mag. +3.2 Theta (θ) Aquilae.
The best way to identify 12 Victoria is to sketch or image the field you suspect the asteroid to be located within over the course of several nights.
If 12 Victoria is in this field, its movement will reveal it. In order to achieve this, the field must be recorded with field stars below the threshold of the asteroid, say at least mag. +9.5.
12 Victoria was discovered on 13 September 1850 by John Russell Hind. Although officially named after the Roman goddess of victory, it was also named in honour of Queen Victoria.
It’s a siliceous or stony (S-type) asteroid, around 120km-across, orbiting within the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Its apparent magnitude varies between +8.7 and +12.8, making this opposition quite favourable.
12 Victoria’s orbit takes it out as far as 2.85 AU and in as close as 1.82 AU from the Sun.
Studies of its elongated shape suggest that it might be a binary object, the primary chunk having an irregular shaped moon in mutual orbit around it.
June 2021: See Asteroid 30 Urania
Asteroid 30 Urania was discovered by the English astronomer John Russell Hind on 22 July 1854. It reaches opposition on 14 June 2021, when it can be located against the stars of the constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent-bearer.
Urania is a main belt asteroid. Its shape and dimensions were measured using a technique known as speckle interferometry, which revealed the asteroid to be elliptical with a longest dimension of 111km and narrowest of 89km.
At its brightest it can be mag. +9.4, so this opposition doesn’t present it at optimal brightness. It takes 3.64 years to orbit the Sun, an orbit that takes it out as far as 2.67 AU and as close as 2.07 AU.
Urania is an S-type or siliceous asteroid, a class that has a stony or mineralogical composition. S-type asteroids account for about 17% of asteroids.
Strictly speaking Urania starts the month in Sagittarius, the Archer, 2˚ north of mag. +4.2, 3 Sagittarii. This positions it very close Sagittarius’s western border and tracking west.
It’s not long before Urania crosses this invisible demarcation line, slipping into Ophiuchus in the early hours of 3 June.
Urania remains above or equal to mag. +11.0 all month, a viable target for a small telescope, but beyond average binocular range.
Its track this month takes it 2˚ south of the mag. +7.4 globular cluster NGC 6401 on the nights of 6/7, 7/8 and 8/9 June.
It passes 0.5º south of mag. +3.3 Theta (θ) Ophiuchi on 22/23 June.
By the month’s end, it’s located 4˚ east-northeast of the mag. +6.8 globular cluster M19. The bright skies found near the June solstice will make locating even a mag. +11.0 object trickier than normal.