The brightest comet of the year will be visible this Sunday

Cristina Cross
December 18, 2018

Comet Wirtanen will pass close enough to the Earth to be visible to the naked eye in the night sky in rural and suburban areas.

The comet Wirtanen will make its closet approach to Earth in centuries this weekend, being 7.1 million miles away on Sunday.

46P will be the 10th-closest comet to Earth in modern times, according to UMD data, though rest assured that there is no chance that the comet could hit our planet. As the National Space Centre in the United Kingdom explains: "When the comet is at its closest (and brightest) to Earth, it's also being vaporized by the Sun, shedding reflective dust and vapor that could make it even brighter".

And it will occur during the annual Geminid meteor shower, giving stargazers even more to look at.

This picture taken from Paris region with a telescope on December 3, 2018 shows the 46P/Wirtanen comet as it will come closer to Earth on December 16, 2018.

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 should be ahead of the constellations between Taurus and the Pleaiades. With a width of 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers), 46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun fairly quickly for a comet - once every 5.4 years - making it a short-period comet.

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"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.

Astronomers are dubbing it the Christmas Comet and it is predicted it will be the brightest comet of 2018.

He added: "We have not had a comet this well placed and bright for many 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.

"Look towards the east with a small pair of binoculars or a telescope to see the green, fuzzy comet". The comet will start in the eastern sky near 6PM Sunday evening, before traveling to its highest point in the sky to the south around 9PM. That simply makes the comet much easier to find, if you are not accustomed to using a star chart.

46P/Wirtanen was discovered on January 17, 1948, by the American astronomer Carl Wirtanen. But launch delays forced new plans, and Rosetta's probe eventually landed on another comet in 2014 after a 10-year voyage.

Bodewits said this sky-watching event will provide important context to the Rosetta and Deep Impact missions.

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