Although the brightest comet of 2018, and just visible to the naked eye, Wirtanen's comet will be seen best in dark skies through binoculars, says Jim Lattis, director of UW Space Place, the University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomy outreach center.
However, predicting a comet's brightness is much more hard than forecasting the weather. It is bright enough to be seen without a telescope or binoculars, though using those would make it look even better. Although the comet known as 46P/Wirtanen will approach at a distant 11.4 million kilometres or 30 lunar distances from Earth, it's still a fairly rare opportunity.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen now resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleiades star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran.
Comet Wirtanen comes closest to Capella on the nights of December 22 and 23, just a few degrees south and east of the star.
According to NASA, comet 46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years, so it will be back in Highland County's night skies in the spring of 2024.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen began brightening in November, but it will make its closest approach to Earth on Sunday and be visible with the naked eye.
Carl Wirtanen discovered 46P on January 17, 1948, at the Lick Observatory in Mount Hamilton, California.
SUPPLIEDDirections to spot the 46P Wirtanen comet passing Earth
These constant swings by the sun come with a cost. Also, Wirtanen has a small nucleus.
The core of the comet is bright, but the outer part is faint, so it required a long exposure.
So, the comet will not be that bright in the night sky, but researchers can still perform valuable science as the object flies by Earth, Tucker said.
Astronomical photographer Stephen Chadwick captured the comet last week. He will be researching what ices make up the comet and how chemical processes change the gas around it. While the reason for this composition is poorly understood, scientists know for sure that the water and the methane give Wirtanen its green coloring. The comet appears to be a close twin to comet Hartley 2, the second target of the Deep Impact mission.
You can follow the project, called the Comet Wirtanen Observing Campaign, at its website here: http://wirtanen.astro.umd.edu. Bodewits said the comet should be relatively easy to find for viewers who are in a dark spot. It is a member of the Jupiter family of comets - their farthest point from the sun being near the orbit of Jupiter.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen will be making a close pass of Earth December 16, 2018. But the atmosphere around the comet, or coma, is bigger than Jupiter.
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