‘Christmas comet’ - the year’s brightest - to pass by Earth this weekend


"This could be one of the brightest comets in years, offering astronomers an important opportunity to study a comet up close with ground-based telescopes, both optical and radar".

Its closest passage by the Earth will be on Sunday December 16, when it will be 7.2 million miles from the planet. Because the comet is not particularly bright, most of its approaches are unlikely to make for an impressive show from Earth, and this month's flyby will be among its best.

The comet's brightness may be great enough for people to see it with their naked eyes.

To catch a glimpse of 46P, you'll want to be in an area without much light pollution. People should be able to view it between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. if the sky is clear, according to the AP.

Hundreds of meteors and a "Christmas Comet" are expected to continue lighting up the night sky during the Geminid meteor shower. Because passing by Jupiter perturbs the comet, astronomers know that its trajectory has changed over the years; specifically, Wirtanen had two close brushes with Jupiter, in April 1972 and February 1984, that moved the comet's orbit 50 million miles (80.5 million kilometers) closer to the sun, as well as closer to Earth's orbit, Rao said in his article.

Farnham oversees an online clearinghouse of information about the comet that educates the public and encourages collaboration among astronomers who gather data about it. Orion is a bright wintertime constellation that you can spot in the eastern sky by the distinctive "Orion's Belt", a band of three stars.

Directions to spot the 46P  Wirtanen comet passing Earth
SUPPLIEDDirections to spot the 46P Wirtanen comet passing Earth

First quarter Moon is on December 15; as the Moon grows to full phase on the 22nd, observing the comet will become increasingly hard to impossible.

46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun every five-and-a-half years - lightning fast, as comets are concerned. As I always tell you with meteor showers, the best viewing will be in the darkest skies possible so, the farther away you are from the city lights, the better your chances of seeing Comet Wirtanen. If you're anxious about risky comets striking Earth, however, breathe easy: Wirtanen is not on the list of those that astronomers worry about.

Taking a long exposure with a mounted camera of the comet may capture a more crisp image and reveal its tail, or coma, she said.

46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years.

"This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries", said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This is because the comet will be unusually large in angular size, as well as appearing very diffuse ... nearly ghostly".

"We're getting a look at stuff that was formed during the formation of the solar system and has been out in the deep freeze since then", Lattis says.

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