Skywatchers will get a special treat next week as the year’s brightest comet flies across the night sky.
Though the comet has the rather uninspiring name of “46P/Wirtanen,” it will be among the 10 closest comet approaches to Earth since 1950 and the 20th-closest approach of a comet dating as far back as the ninth century, according to Sky & Telescope.
Wirtanen’s closest approach to the sun will be Wednesday, Dec. 12, and its closest approach to Earth will be Sunday, Dec. 16, EarthSky said. On that day, the comet will be “only” 7.1 million miles from Earth, which is rather close in cosmic terms. (The sun, for instance, is about 93 million miles away.)
The comet should be visible with the naked eye, but the best views will probably be through binoculars and small telescopes, especially away from city lights. “Be sure to seek out dark skies in your quest for Comet 46P Wirtanen,” said David Dickenson of Universe Today.
One nuisance will be brightness from the increasingly full moon next week.
The comet and its coma (the fuzzy-looking area around the comet) will be rather large – two to three times the diameter of the moon, Sky & Telescope reported.
“Remember, you’re not looking for a sharp star-like object but rather something which is spreading its light out over a relatively large area,” said Sky & Telescope’s Joe Rao.
At a diameter of about 3/4 of a mile, the comet is relatively small. It’ll zoom along at more than 21,000 mph.
Since the comet will remain within 10 million miles of Earth for several weeks, NASA scientists will get an extended chance to study it. NASA researcher Michael DiSanti said the comet’s flyby will allow detailed studies of what it’s made of as more of the comet’s nucleus becomes exposed to sunlight.
According to Universe Today, U.S. astronomer Carl Wirtanen first spied the comet on the night of Jan. 17, 1948, while surveying the sky from the Lick Observatory in California. Because he discovered it, the comet bears his name.
One extra bit of good news: There is “no chance of the comet hitting Earth,” the University of Maryland’s astronomy department reported.