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Year’s brightest comet, the ‘Christmas Comet’, visible this weekend

Christmas Comet

This Sunday, December 16th, star lovers everywhere will get the chance to see this year’s brightest comet with the naked eye. Dubbed the ‘Christmas Comet’, or 46P/Wirtanen, it’s an opportunity for space enthusiasts to find a dark place an hurt their necks looking at the heavens.

Astronomy Magazine reports:

The year’s brightest comet makes its closest approach to Earth this weekend, passing by one of the night sky’s most beautiful star clusters, the Pleiades, along the way.

Though Comet 46P/Wirtanen — the so-called Christmas comet — is not yet obvious to the naked eye in most places, it may already be visible under a clear sky located far from city lights.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen currently resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleiades star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran. This area remains visible nearly all night, but climbs highest in late evening.

American astronomer Carl Alvar Wirtanen, who also notably discovered the Apollo astroid, discovered the comet January 17th, 1948 while researching stellar motion at Lick Observatory in San Jose California.

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The comet has a 5 1/2 year orbit and measures about 0.7 miles wide. Along with amateur astronomers far and wide, the University of Maryland is leading the observation campaign.

Their mission:

Our intention is to provide a central clearinghouse for basic information regarding comet 46P/Wirtanen (WERE-tuh-nun) and other high profile comets, to encourage and facilitate the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of observations, and to promote collaborations between researchers.

If you’re interested in where to go to see the comet at it’s best, it’s advised to reference their star charts here. But the easiest time to find the comet is Sunday, when it’s just a few degrees from the Pleiades star cluster: 

Take a look at this virtual telescope, where you can see the comet moving against a backdrop of faraway stars:

Though it isn’t very bright compared to comets like Halley’s Comet (with a nucleus of ~15KM), or the Hall-Bop Comet (with a nucleus at ~30KM), it’s still worth the photo op, even with this tiny ~1KM nucleus.

Spaceweather.com has some advice from Astrophotographer Juan Carlos Casado:

“Use Raw file format, a fast lens (at least f/2.8) and ISO settings between 1600 and 3200. The exposure will depend on the focal length. I normally use the 500 rule–that is, exposure = 500 / focal length (mm). It also helps in areas with light pollution to use an antipollution filter. I am now using Optolong L-Pro clip filter which gives excellent color balance.”

This Christmas comet is the 10th closest comet to Earth in modern times, which is about 30 times the moon’s distance from us (7.1 million miles, or 11.5 million km). So don’t worry alarmists, there’s plenty of room to spare. We should be fine until 2880, when the Apollo asteroid comes along ;). 

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