"What's more, 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". If you're anxious about unsafe comets striking Earth, however, breathe easy: Wirtanen is not on the list of those that astronomers worry about. The comet can best be seen by the naked eye if the skies are very dark, but for the best view, use binoculars or a telescope.
Although the December 16 approach will be a distant 7.1 million miles (11.4 million km, or 30 lunar distances) from Earth, it's still a fairly rare opportunity. However, areas with more light pollution won't be able to see it as well as more rural, out-in-the-open areas.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen now resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleiades star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran. According to the astronomy site Sky & Telescope, it is set to be the 20th-closest comet dating as far back as the ninth century.
When you do, you'll be taking in the sight of a comet discovered by Kenosha native Carl Wirtanen, a well-regarded hunter of astronomical objects and surveyor of the Milky Way in the 20th century.
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46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years. However, Rosetta's target was changed to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which the probe studied for roughly two years, between 2014 and 2016.
These constant swings by the sun come with a cost.
"The fact that it's brighter means we can study a lot of different gas types that we normally can't study because they're too faint", Farnham said, adding that researchers could learn more about where the comet formed and how it evolved.
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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. It has a diameter of about three-quarters of a mile - a relatively small comet.
The streaks of coloured light are the debris of the Geminid meteors burning up in the planet's atmosphere. "This is because the comet will be unusually large in angular size, as well as appearing very diffuse ... nearly ghostly".
NASA is pulling out all the stops for the comet's close flyby.
Not only do they occasionally grace our skies and put on a attractive 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. "The comet will even pass through the observing field of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)". But the comet is an interesting object of study and helps astronomers better understand comets in general, especially those that are a part of the Jupiter family.
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If your'e up to a challenge, there's comet to be seen the next clear, reasonably dark night.