The 'Christmas Comet' Is Coming to Town. Here's How to See It

The 'Christmas Comet' Is Coming to Town. Here's How to See It

The 'Christmas Comet' Is Coming to Town. Here's How to See It

The comet, actually known as 46P/Wirtane, will make a close pass of Earth on December 16.

Chodas said, "Comet Wirtanen has already been visible in larger amateur telescopes, and while the brightness of comets is notoriously hard to predict, there is the possibility that during its close approach comet Wirtanen could be visible with binoculars or to the naked eye". Closest approach is on December 16 when it will be 7,199,427 miles away.

For nonscientists, this lasting memorial to a Wisconsin comet hunter will simply be a fresh opportunity to look up - if the winter skies cooperate. The comet has an orbital period of approximately 5.5 years. It should be just as visible for a week or two because its appearance will change gradually.

Comet Wirtanen is especially interesting in that this comet makes the 20th closest approach to Earth go any comet in 12 centuries. Wirtanen discovered five comets and three asteroids during his long career, which included a stint doing ballistics research during World War II.

These constant swings by the sun come with a cost.

Don't expect to see the comet's tail. The Hubble Space Telescope examined Wirtanen in 1996 and found a tiny core of only seven-tenths of a mile (1.1 km), one of the smallest cometary nuclei we know of.

The comet's bright display will be preceded by the shooting stars of the Geminid meteor shower, which will create a Christmas light show for people with their eyes to the heavens.

Astronomical photographer Stephen Chadwick captured the comet last week. That simply makes the comet much easier to find, if you are not accustomed to using a star chart.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen reached "perihelion", which is the closest part of its orbit to the sun, earlier this week and will zoom close to Earth tomorrow, which is Saturday, December 16. The comet appears to be a close twin to comet Hartley 2, the second target of the Deep Impact mission.

The comet is a member of the "Jupiter family" of comets.

"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)", NASA officials wrote in a statement". But the atmosphere around the comet, or coma, is bigger than Jupiter. Astronomers have predicted the comet will have a magnitude of 4.2, which means that a dark, clear sky and an absence of ambient light will most likely be needed to see it.

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