Looking Up: Dim comet to pass bright star near Christmas

Periodic comet 46P  Wirtanen is passing close to Earth

The year's brightest comet makes its closest approach to Earth this weekend, passing by one of the night sky's most attractive star clusters, the Pleiades, along the way.

Its closest passage by the Earth will be on Sunday December 16, when it will be 7.2 million miles from the planet.

Though Comet 46P/Wirtanen - the so-called Christmas comet - is not yet obvious to the naked eye in most places, it may already be visible under a clear sky located far from city lights. And while you will be able to see a bit of green in the night sky, it will still look better under magnification. This is the closest its been to Earth in more than 400 years.

She said the comet won't have the trademark tail since it's in the wrong position and finding it won't be obvious unless a person knows where to look and is really searching for it. It will also tell you in what part of the sky to look.

This 120 second image of comet 46P/Wirtanen was taken December 2, 2018 by an iTelescope 50 mm refractor located at an observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico.

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

Not only do they occasionally grace our skies and put on a handsome display (I vividly remember as a child seeing Comet Khohoutek back in 1973), but they are also left-over remnants from the creation of the solar system - primordial chunks of dirt and ice left untouched and floating around in space for the past 4.6 billion years. There, Wirtanen's comet will lie between two bright and well-known star clusters, the Pleiades and the Hyades.

Astronomer Joseph Rao said it would be possible to see it, but the comet will be very hard to spot. Wirtanen discovered five comets and three asteroids during his long career, which included a stint doing ballistics research during World War II. The streak below the comet was produced by a rocket body (upper stage) passing through the telescope's field of view during the exposure. The comet will start in the eastern sky near 6PM Sunday evening, before traveling to its highest point in the sky to the south around 9PM. "This is because the comet will be unusually large in angular size, as well as appearing very diffuse ... nearly ghostly". With the exception of Halley's comet, which returns on the cosmically short timescale of 75 years, most famously bright comets have orbits in the hundreds or thousands of years and are rare sights. The Earth is about to get one of the closest visits from a comet in centuries.

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

"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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