DETROIT - I’ve long considered comets to be the most fascinating objects in the heavens.
Not only do they occasionally grace our skies and put on a beautiful display (I vividly remember as a child seeing Comet Khohoutek back in 1973), but they are also left-over remnants from the creation of the solar system -- primordial chunks of dirt and ice left untouched and floating around in space for the past 4.6 billion years. While it won’t be the most spectacular comet in history, this weekend’s comet is still something special to look for.
The bottom line is that, this weekend, the comet known as 46P/Wirtanen will make one of the 10 closest comet flybys of Earth in 70 years, and you may even be able to see it without a telescope -- if the clouds move out.
Although the approach will be a distant 7.1 million miles (30 lunar distances) from Earth, it's still a fairly rare opportunity.
"This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries," said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. What's more, Chodas said, "This could be one of the brightest comets in years, offering astronomers an important opportunity to study a comet up close with ground-based telescopes, both optical and radar."
However, predicting a comet’s brightness is much more difficult than forecasting the weather. Over the years, some comets that were predicted to be very bright disappointed, while others that weren't expected to be special overachieved. We’ll just have to wait and see what we get!
Comet Wirtanen has already been visible in larger amateur telescopes, and there is the possibility that, during its closest approach this weekend, comet Wirtanen could be visible with binoculars or to the naked eye.
One negative, however, is that we’ll have a moon in that part of the sky -- that’ll make it tougher to see. As I always tell you with meteor showers, the best viewing will be in the darkest skies possible so, the farther away you are from the city lights, the better your chances of seeing Comet Wirtanen.
Astronomer Carl Wirtanen discovered the comet in 1948 at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in Santa Clara County, California. 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). At the time of closest approach, the comet will appear to be located in the constellation Taurus close to the Pleiades.
So, where do we look? Fortunately, we have a couple of easy “beacons” leading the way. First of all, most people are familiar with the constellation Orion -- look for that first. Above or to the upper right of Orion (depending upon what part of the night you are watching) is a bright orange star, called Aldebaran, that should be easy to see.
Once you find Aldebaran, look to the upper right of that for a little bluish-greenish fuzz ball. That’s the comet -- let’s hope we get some clearing on at least one of our two weekend nights! Again, binoculars will give you your best chance of seeing it, and keep in mind that, unless you’re looking through a telescope, you won’t see anything close to what you see in the photograph above.
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