Comet to brighten night sky Sunday

Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

"The fuzziness is just because it's a ball of gas basically", Tony Farnham, a research scientist in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, said Saturday morning after a long night studying the comet at the Discovery Channel Telescope, about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Although the approach will be a distant 7.1 million miles (30 lunar distances) from Earth, it's still a fairly rare opportunity.

One of the closest comets in modern times will pass by Earth this weekend - but don't worry, there's no danger of it hitting us. It is bright enough to be seen without a telescope or binoculars, though using those would make it look even better. However you can see it, the comet will appear more "clouded" than other objects in the sky. The comet is now well up in the southern sky around 10 p.m., but may be seen in the southeastern sky earlier in the evening.

It comes during the annual Geminid meteor shower, "giving stargazers even more to look at", CBS News reports. You can check Time and Date to figure out when the best time to see it in your location. Your chances increase if you look when the comet is higher in the sky.

First quarter Moon is on December 15; as the Moon grows to full phase on the 22nd, observing the comet will become increasingly hard to impossible.

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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. The streak below the comet was produced by a rocket body (upper stage) passing through the telescope's field of view during the exposure.

A map from Sky & Telescope demonstrating Comet 64P/Wirtanen's path through the sky.

46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years. It may appear like a fuzzy halo due to the comet being made of ice.

Cooper said every now and then a comet brightened up to this magnitude, but often they had to be viewed by telescope. In the Deep Impact mission, NASA launched a space probe in 2005 to study the interior of a comet by releasing an impactor that collided with the comet's nucleus to emit material from below its surface.

"This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries", Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

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