Published: Sun, December 16, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

Don't Miss the 2018 Christmas Comet in the Sky This Weekend!

Don't Miss the 2018 Christmas Comet in the Sky This Weekend!

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

You can expect a ghostly green blob to grow brighter in the sky near Orion in the coming days, as Comet 46P/Wirtanen makes it closest approach to the Earth in 20 years this weekend.

The very big object is more than 1km wide but will definitely not hit Planet Earth. That's 30 times the moon's distance from us.

The Virtual Telescope will be running a viewing session on December 16, meaning you can log onto its website to take a good look at the Christmas comet from the comfort of your own home. But even now, it's currently the brightest comet in the night sky, and the brightest of 2018. With a width of 0.7 miles, 46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun fairly quickly for a comet - once every 5.4 years - making it a short-period comet - (long-period comets, on the other hand, have orbital periods greater than 200 years).

46P/Wirtanen was discovered on January 17, 1948, by the American astronomer Carl Wirtanen.

Chodas said, "Comet Wirtanen has already been visible in larger amateur telescopes, and while the brightness of comets is notoriously hard to predict, there is the possibility that during its close approach comet Wirtanen could be visible with binoculars or to the naked eye". "It will be near the constellation Orion, or the saucepan", said Brad Tucker from the Australian National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. And as scientists reported, you will able to see the comet without a telescope. Look up anytime between twilight and sunrise to catch a glimpse. Check to figure out the best time in your part of the world. It's three-quarters of a mile across with a core that's less than a mile wide.

Scientists still don't know how Wirtanen came to be - if it used to be an Oort family comet that was perturbed into moving closer to Jupiter or if it broke off from a larger body in the past, Tucker said. When it passes the sun, this icy comet essentially experiences some melting. That's what creates the glowing green cloud. The darker the sky, the better.

In contrast, the space agency said the most well-known of the comets, the one named after Sir Edmund Halley, won't return until July 2061. Looking at the radio-range wavelengths of light the comet releases, astronomers can examine the distinctive gases that come off of the visitor.

"We're getting a look at stuff that was formed during the formation of the solar system and has been out in the deep freeze since then", Lattis said to CNN.

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