See the 'Christmas Comet' on Sunday

Gwen Vasquez
December 18, 2018

The Geminid meteor shower will provide a shining backdrop for the approach of Comet 46P/Wirtanen on Thursday (Dec. 13), shortly before the object's closest approach to Earth in 20 years.

It may be about 11 million kilometres away, but the light of periodic comet 46P/Wirtanen can be seen from Earth. To be technical, until a comet completely disintegrates, it always in the sky, but usually it is too far away for anyone to see it. Comet Wirtanen has brightened to +4th magnitude and is faintly visible to unaided eyes as a dim, fuzzy patch in a dark sky. The comet will be at its closest distance to our planet in over four centuries, and you may even be able to see it without a telescope. The comet is now well up in the southern sky around 10 p.m., but may be seen in the southeastern sky earlier in the evening.

When we think of a comet we may picture a bright spectacle with a long tail stretching across the heavens, something to make even someone who never gives the night sky a passing glance, reason to look up and point.

On Sunday, December 16, 2018, comet 46P/Wirtanen will make a close pass of Earth. You can check Time and Date to figure out when the best time to see it in your location.

To look for the comet, you will want to locate the Orion and Taurus constellations. There, Wirtanen's comet will lie between two bright and well-known star clusters, the Pleiades and the Hyades. The comet is named for the man that first observed it in 1948, Carl Wirtanen, a senior observing assistant at California's Lick Observatory. "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".

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"Wirtanen's comet could easily be chosen again for another mission", says Lattis. A rocket's upper stage passed through the telescope's field of view during the exposure, creating the streak below the comet.

In that time, the comet will have gradually moved towards the northern sky.

If the weather cooperates, Hillsboro High School science teacher Shannon Yochum said that seeing the comet shouldn't be too hard if one can locate two familiar objects in the night sky; the constellation Orion and the Pleiades star cluster, which itself resembles a fuzzy patch of light.

Comet 46P was originally chosen by the European Space Agency to land the Rosetta probe on its surface, but launch delays caused a new target to be selected.

"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 said to CNN.

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