Comet 46P/Wirtanen will scorch past Earth tomorrow - how to see it

Pablo Tucker
December 18, 2018

But while in some dark rural areas it will be visible to the naked eye, astronomers are recommending people use binoculars or telescopes to get the best view of it.

Keep your eye out for a fuzzy, sort of dim object.

"Sunday night we'll have partly cloudy skies so it'll be in and out if you're trying to see the comet", he said.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen will scorch past Earth tomorrow - how to see it

The comet, "46P/Wirtanent", dubbed "The Christmas Comet" is expected to come within about 7.2 million miles of Earth.

The Virtual Telescope will be running a viewing session on December 16, meaning you can log onto its website to take a good look at the Christmas comet from the comfort of your own home.

If you hold your fist to the sky and look a couple of fist-lengths to the left of the belt, you will spot Wirtanen.

Not only do they occasionally grace our skies and put on a attractive 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. Rosetta was a space probe built by the European Space Agency that followed comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko for more than two years around the Sun.

Note: It is very hard to predict the brightness of comets. The comet appears to be a close twin to comet Hartley 2, the second target of the Deep Impact mission. Writing for Sky & Telescope, Joe Rao warns, "Even for those who are blessed with dark and starry skies, finding the comet could prove to be a bit of a challenge".

NASA-sponsored ground, air and space-based observatories getting in on the action include NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar in California; the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Maunakea, Hawaii; the Hubble, Chandra, Swift and Spitzer space telescopes; and an airborne observatory known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

The comet will even pass through the observing field of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), Nasa said. Your chances increase if you look when the comet is higher in the sky.

With a width of 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers), 46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun fairly quickly for a comet - once every 5.4 years - making it a short-period comet.

"It unexpectedly found a lot of molecular oxygen gas and discovered that electron collisions can change the comet gas", he said. But the atmosphere around the comet, or coma, is bigger than Jupiter.

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