ThePlanetsToday.com brings you face to face with the solar system as it is now... and also how it was and how it will be.
Where is Halley's Comet (or 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko?... and a few others) right now?
Comet Locations and Orbits
This page shows the current location of some of the comets that are visible to the naked eye, and some that are not. The data is mostly from NASA's JPL website.
The animation can be run forwards and backwards to show previous and future locations of the comets within their orbits.
BE CAREFUL!!!! Comet Positions
Before you start jumping up and down and saying - "Hey... that ain’t right! I see no comets there!", make sure that you have the "3D" view enabled.
To explain: Up to now this website has only shown planets and objects which for the most part live in the plane of the ecliptic - e.g. the flat plane that all the planets move around in. Comets, however, do not obey this rule and have orbits that are at quite an angle to the ecliptic. This means that they often come at the sun from a steep dive angle.
Halleys comet, for instance, at it's furthest point from the sun is about 10 AU (AU = the radius of earth’s orbit) away from the plane of the ecliptic - on the southern side. Only when it gets very close to the sun does it pop over onto the northern side for a few months (reaching about 0.2 AU from the plane of the ecliptic) before it goes south again on it's way back out of the inner solar system.
With the 3D view enabled (by default) we show you the distance of any object above or below the plane of the ecliptic by putting it on a "stalk". The view is still really a 2D view but with the stalk providing additional 3rd dimension information.
If you want to find the exact location for a comet in the sky, then I recommend using one of the many other useful astronomy sites that can guide you to correct observations.
BE CAREFUL!!!! Comet Tails
We've shown the comets with tails as they get close to the Sun. This is what really happens of course, but what we've shown is just an estimate and is not (cannot) show what the real tails will look like.
Comet tails are produced when the Sun heats up the comet causing volatile materials (such as water) to boil off (or rather sublimate) into space causing a trail of gas molecules to appear. These molecules are pushed by the solar wind and so drift out in a direction directly away from the sun. Comets also have another tail made of dust that trails the comet in its trajectory (not shown in our animation).
The size and intensity of a comet tail, and also the point at which the tail will appear or disappear, cannot be easily predicted. This means that the actual comet tails will differ from that shown in the animation. The real comet tails will also be 3D, where as ours are shown as 2D.
This comet and it's close sister fragment P/2016 BA14 (PANSTARRS) came within 13 and 9 lunar distances respectively from earth on 21st and 22nd of March 2016. This comet orbits the sun every 5.3 years and lies between Earth's and Jupiter's Orbits coming very cloe to each of these planets from time to time. The orbit shown below is only correct for years after 1785 since in that year the comet's orbit was changed by an interaction with Jupiters gravitational field. Before then the comet would not have got closer to the Sun than the asteroid belt.
This comet approaches Earth from the southern hemishere and loops into the northern hemishpere at the end of March 2016.
67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - Rosetta's Target Comet
This comet was discovered in 1969 by Klim Ivanovych Churyumov of Kiev University after examining a photograph taken by Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko. This 4.3km long dumbbell shaped comet is in a short 6.5 year orbit. It currently rotates every 12.4 hours but this rotation is slowing quite rapidly - thought to be due to it losing it's ice due to sublimation.
NOTE: The orbit shown here is only correct for times after February 1959. In that month the orbit was changed by a close encounter with Jupiter. In the previous orbit 67P came no closer than 400 million km from the Sun and now it moves to within 190 million km. Observation Info.
Rosetta and the Philae lander
In 2014 the Rosetta spacecraft began orbiting 67P and successfully landed the probe "Philae" on its surface.
For more information on Rosetta and the Philae lander- including the full flight path and current position, visit our Rosetta Flight Path page.
Halley's comet is probably the most well known of all the comets. It approaches the sun every 75-76 years and and it's visits may have been recorded as early as 467 BC.
The NASA data for comets only covers the years 1600 AD - 2200 AD. This is because it is difficult to predict accurately the path of comets over any great time. This is due to the fact that the comet is ejecting matter on every flyby of the sun which means its mass is constantly changing and the ejection of the gasses can act as tiny rocket motors gently pushing the comet off course.
Our animation averages out the variations in Halleys orbit and fills in some of the gaps in the data by using some additional data points as defined on the Halley’s comet wiki page to get approximate fixes for the years 1066 AD and 240 BC. However, the position of the comet shown outside of 1600-2200 is speculative.
To see the precise position and the changing orbit of the comet between 1600AD and 2200AD, please visit our Halley's Comet page.
As stated earlier, Halley's Comet spends most of it's time on the southern side of the plane of the ecliptic and only pops onto the northern side at its closest approach to the sun. Observation Info.
C/2014 Q1 (PanSTARRS)
This comet came from deep on the southern side of the ecliptic and popped into the northern side on May 6th 2015 and then looped back, passing into the southern side on July 15th 2015.Observation Info.
ISON (C/2012 S1)
ISON is another comet from the Oort cloud, but unlike PanSTARRS, ISON is moving so fast in that it will never return to the sun. ISON has a similar trajectory to panSTARRS in that it enters and exits the inner solar system from the northern side of the ecliptic at an angle of about 30 degrees. It goes onto the southern side of the ecliptic as it loops around the sun. Another animation in 3D shows this trajectory on the Wiki page.
Lemmon (C/2012 F6)
C/2012 F6 Lemmon was detected in 2012 at the Mount Lemmon Survey... hence the name. It also comes in at an angle of around 30 degrees to the north of the ecliptic and leaving at a much steeper angle.
Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2)
C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy was detected in 2014 by Terry Lovejoy using an 8" telescope - the fifth comet he discovered. This comet crossed into the northern sky on the 9th January 2015. It has an 11,000 year orbit and was best observed in dark skies during early 2015. Observation Info.
Chiron (C/2060 and 95P)
Chiron was detected in 1977 by Charles T Kowal. It was first thought to be a large asteroid but subsequently has been seen to have properties similar to a comet (i.e. a tail has been detected) and so is designated as asteroid 95P and Comet C/2060. These dual properties gave rise to Chiron being classified as a centaur - a mythical creature with the body of a horse and the upper torso of a human. This classification has come to mean small solar system bodies that orbit between Jupiter and Neptune and also overlap one or more of these outer planet orbits.
Its radius is estimated at between 80km and 120km, and rotates once every 6 hours. It orbits the Sun every 50 years and has a slight incline to the ecliptic of under 7 degrees. It is thought to be in an unstable (as measured in a million years) orbit and is therefore thought to be a newcomer to the central solar system from perhaps the Kuiper belt.
C/2013 US10 (Catalina)
C/2013 US10 Calalina was discovered in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey.
This object is thought to have been recently knocked out of a several million year orbit in the Oort cloud is now on an escape trajectory.
This comet is moving in a plane that is at 60 degrees to the ecliptic and came hurtling in from the northern side, passing through the ecliptic in Jan 2004. It looped around the sun and crossed back into the northern hemisphere on 27 November 2015 and is heading off never to return. Observation Info.
More Comets than ever before!!
The SOHO spacecraft is nearing it's 3000th detected sungrazing comet - that's 2988 more than when it started! Article (July 2015)