Take your cameras, escape the city lights and have a front seat for a beautiful heavenly show this week.
The so-called Christmas comet, officially known as 46P / Wirtanen, is the brightest comet of the year. She will make her closest approach to the Earth at the end of the evening December 16th (or early in the morning of December 17 if you are in the AEDT time zone).
The comet is already visible if you have a binoculars and will be the brightest one December 14th and December 18th, according to amateur astronomer Jan Musgrave.
Day or earlier, if you're ready to stand up in the tiny hours, you'll catch the jammed meteor shower that goes on in the morning December 15th,
If you fly inward from a point near Jupiter, 46P / Wirtanen swings to the Sun every five years, but it's usually too far to see it.
This year we will increase about 11.5 million kilometers from us – or 30 times the distance to the moon. She will not come that close for another 20 years.
The comet, including its diffuse halo of light, is about the size of the full moon. The brightest will be the equivalent of the two darkest stars we can see in the South Cross.
But unlike the stars in the South Cross, it "looks like a fuzzy patch," so you're unlikely to be able to see it with the naked eye, said Dr. Musgrave.
The good news, however, is that you should be able to see it with binoculars or use a standard DSLR camera if you are away from the bright city lights.
"People get good views in the binoculars and should be potentially visible by the end of January," said Dr. Musgrave.
How to Recognize the Christmas Comet
You can spot the comet from any point in Australia in the northeast skies about an hour and a half after sunset until early in the morning when it sinks below the horizon.
"[Later in the week] it is better to start shortly after midnight; until then the cosmic moon is set and out of the way, "explained Dr. Musgrave.
The tricky thing with comets is that they move every night – with about one hand, so you'll have to use the stars as landmarks.
At the beginning of the week draw an imaginary line between Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and Rigel – the bright blue star in the Orion constellation over the eastern horizon, and extend it to the next brightest star – then go back the span.
By the middle of the week the comet will be near the constellation Taurus. Find the V-shape of the bull's head and look up to two bright stars at the top of the constellation.
And by December 16, the comet will sit between the red star Aldebaran and the star of the Pleiades.
If you have a good view of the horizon, you could also see the annual Geminids meteor shower as it rises early in the morning.
Jaminid meteor shower
The meteor shower Geminds is the most reliable meteor shower in the southern hemisphere.
Most meteor showers are caused by dust and debris left over by passing comets, but the gemini are the result of dust and debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that is five kilometers wide.
You can see a shower from anywhere in Australia between December 13th and 16th, reaching peak on the morning of December 15th.
To see it, you need to look for the constellation Gemini, about two hands above the horizon, below and on the right of Orion (or a saucepan).
"If you look north, the two brightest stars you see right above the horizon are Castor and Pollux, and the radiant gemini is just below," said Dr. Musgrave.
Instead of looking directly at the rays, the starting point for all the meteors in the shower, scan the sky.
"If you look at the ray, nothing will happen, because the meteors begin to burn only to the spot where the radiance is," he said.
The best viewing time is between 2:00 and 3:00 AM AEDT after the moon is set for the first quarter.
And further north you live better, with the potential for a meteor that is projected every minute to two minutes under a dark sky.
"You will see a little less in the suburbs, but you should be able to see a decent number of meteors," said Dr. Musgrave.
How to get good pictures
Astronopter Dillon O'Donnell took pictures of 46P / Wirtanen (see above) earlier this month, from his backyard at Byron Bay.
"The coma is particularly bright now," said O'Donnell.
He also began to pick up a dusty tail because it was blown off by the comet as it approached the sun.
Other astrophotographers also began to lift a second queue consisting of gas particles ionized by solar UV radiation.
Mr. O'Donnell uses a dedicated high-end photographic telescope to monitor the capturing of the image in three minutes.
But, he said, you do not need a high-end kit to take a comet picture.
Only a camera that can withstand 15 seconds of exposure with wide lens and tripod is needed.
"Anyone with a DSLR camera and a wide lens – 11mm, 16mm, even a fishing eye – can just direct the camera to the comet's general direction.
"Set it for 15 second exposure, with the hole as low as you can.
"And then set the ISO to 1600 or 3200, so it's nice and high, and you'll see a green drop in your images."
He said that comet photography could be difficult because they are moving.
"Take a picture, then another photo and another photo so it moves through the frame," said O'Donnell.
"This allows you to make animation if you take sequential pictures."
You'll catch the best shots earlier in the evening when the comet is higher, away from the horizon.
But if you stay later to capture the geinids, let the exposure go to take a sequence of images.
"Then you can get them alive later and watch any meteor flying through the frame and picking good genmines within that frame," said O'Donnell.
A broad field of observation can even capture another star, called Mira, in its brightest, to the left of the comet in the constellation of Cetus, Dr. Musgrave added.
"It has to be a very good night," he said.