Published: Mon, December 17, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

‘Christmas comet’ - the year’s brightest - to pass by Earth this weekend

‘Christmas comet’ - the year’s brightest - to pass by Earth this weekend

Its 5.5-year orbit stretches out as far as Jupiter.

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.

Try to find an area without too much light pollution for the clearest view.

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, Nasa said in a statement on Friday (December 14). The comet will come within 7 million miles of Earth - a proximity that won't happen again for 20 years. "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". The campaign, led by the University of Maryland, has worldwide participation across the professional and amateur astronomical communities.

The brightest comet of 2018 will streak past Earth right after the peak of the Geminid meteor shower.

Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

Wirtanen's unusual composition (it includes methane and carbon), as well as its close orbit to the sun, made it the original target for the European Space Agency Rosetta mission.

The Christmas Comet's technical name is 46P/Wirtanen, discovered in 1948 by Carl Wirtanen. To local residents it will appear to be a greenish, fuzzy star. As it passes the sun, parts of the comet melt and are absorbed into an expansive atmosphere that travels with it, creating a glowing green cloud, according to Popular Science.

David Moore, editor of Astronomy Ireland magazine, said Comet Wirtanen would be visible to the naked eye in dark rural areas, but also in city suburbs when it was at its brightest. "The comet will even pass through the observing field of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)".

"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. But the atmosphere around the comet, or coma, is bigger than Jupiter.

Meteorologist Jeff Sites of the National Weather Service office in Wilmington told The Times-Gazette that Mother Nature may not afford budding astronomers with conditions for good "seeing".

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