Published: Mon, December 17, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Comet zooming by Earth will be visible Sunday night

Comet zooming by Earth will be visible Sunday night

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. "It will be near the constellation Orion, or the saucepan", said Brad Tucker from the Australian National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The comet should be ahead of the constellations between Taurus and the Pleaiades.

Wirtanen's unusual composition (it includes methane and carbon), as well as its close orbit to the sun, made it the original target for the European Space Agency Rosetta mission. The comet is named for the man that first observed it in 1948, Carl Wirtanen, a senior observing assistant at California's Lick Observatory.

Much like watching a meteor shower, you'll want to be in an area without much light pollution.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen appears in the sky as it orbits the sun about every five years.

Also the Geminid meteor shower will take place in generally the same region of the night sky. Look up anytime between twilight and sunrise to catch a glimpse. This can also make the comet harder to identify, especially when the moon is nearly full (as it is now).

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Radar telescopes can also look at the core of the comet to better understand its rotation rate and direction of spin.

If you aren't able to view it, the Virtual Telescope Project will stream observations from its robotic telescopes. It has a diameter of about three-quarters of a mile - a relatively small comet.

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. That's what creates the glowing green cloud.

Earth Sky reports the comet's closest approach to Earth will be Sunday and people should be able to view it between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Writing for Sky & Telescope, Joe Rao warns, "Even for those who are blessed with dark and starry skies, finding the comet could prove to be a bit of a challenge". That's the comet - let's hope we get some clearing on at least one of our two weekend nights! 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.

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