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Look up to see bright Comet Leonard this month before it vanishes forever

Dec 13, 2021, 4:55 PM
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(CNN) — There is a new comet in town, and December is your only chance to see it before disappears forever. Astronomers say that Comet Leonard is our best and brightest comet to see in 2021.

The comet was first discovered in January of this year by astronomer Greg Leonard.

Leonard, a senior research specialist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, began tracking the fuzzy bit of light on January 3.

“The fact that the tail showed up in those images was remarkable, considering that the comet was about 465 million miles out (from Earth) at that point, about the same distance as Jupiter (from Earth),” he said.

The celestial object has likely spent the last 35,000 years traveling toward the sun, according to Sky & Telescope, and once it makes a close pass of our star on January 3, we won’t be seeing the comet again.

As the comet nears the sun, it brightens, which is why the weeks leading up to this event make the comet easier to see.

It’s also an ultrafast comet, blazing through the inner solar system at 158,084 miles per hour (71 kilometers per second), but it will still appear like a slow-moving object due to its distance from Earth, according to EarthSky.

Comet Leonard made it closest approach to Earth on December 12, coming within 21 million miles (34 million kilometers) of our planet. The comet will be visible in the skies of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres this month.

Look for the low object that resembles a fuzzy star in the evening sky just after the sun sets. Then, the comet will sweep by Venus on December 17.

“There is a small chance Venus will pass close enough to the comet’s path where it may pick up some dust grains in its atmosphere, producing a meteor shower on our neighboring planet,” Leonard said.

Use Venus, currently a brightly visible presence in the southwestern sky around sunset, as a way to help you find the comet.

“Beginning Dec. 13, this comet will appear very low above the horizon just after sunset,” Leonard said. “It will skim across the west-southwestern horizon between now up until around Christmastime. The fact that it’s so close to the horizon makes this comet a bit challenging to observe.”

It’s difficult to predict how well we may be able to see a comet, but you”ll probably need binoculars to spot this one, according to NASA.

“I feel there is going to be something to be seen even for the casual observer,” Leonard said. “Find yourself a dark sky with a good view of the horizon, bring binoculars, and I think you may be rewarded.”

It’s possible that Comet Leonard will be visible to skywatchers looking with the naked eye, but if you’re worried about missing this once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience, The Virtual Telescope Project will be sharing a livestream from its observatory in Rome.

Most comets with long orbital periods, like Comet Leonard, come from the Oort Cloud, a large, icy area that surrounds our solar system. It’s too far away from Earth to have ever been visited by a spacecraft.

“When the tug-of-war is won by the gravity of our solar system, an object may start moving inwards, accelerating as it gets closer to the sun,” Leonard said.

As comets near the sun, these giant iceballs begin to shed some of their material, which forms a halo, or coma, around the object. Dust and gas stream behind comets to form their extremely long tails. Most comets only become visible to us as they travel through the inner solar system, where Earth is located, during their long orbits of the sun.

Understanding comets can open a window into the formation of our sun and solar system because they act like cosmic time capsules of material.

“As much as we have great science on comets, they’re still highly unpredictable with respect to their size, shape, chemical makeup and behavior,” Leonard said. “A wise and famous comet discoverer once said: ‘Comets are like cats — both have tails, and both do precisely what they want.'”

Ancient human ancestors may have witnessed Comet Leonard during its last pass by Earth about 80,000 years ago. But it won’t be coming around again.

“This is the last time we are going to see the comet,” Leonard said. “It’s speeding along at escape velocity, 44 miles per second. After its slingshot around the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, and it may stumble into another star system millions of years from now.”

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Look up to see bright Comet Leonard this month before it vanishes forever