Saturday, December 8, 2018, 15:50 – If you have a clear sky and you are ready to enjoy the cold temperatures, you may want to go to a dark place and look for a passing visitor.
Comet 46P / Wirtanen, first opened in 1948, will have its closest Earth meeting on Dec.16. But this is already visible in the sky.
While this is the brightest comet of the year and the tenth closest comet in modern times, do not expect one with a well-defined tail, a feature of comets.
Currently, Wirtanen, a small comet with a diameter of just 1.2 kilometers, is a fuzzy blue object in the southern sky. The last pictures show a thin tail, but nothing very clear. Wirtanen is likely to brighten up as he makes his closest approach to the sun on December 12th.
Malcolm Park captured this image of the 46P / Wirtanen Comet from Prince Edward County, On, on the night of December 5 (Malcolm Park)
Comets, often called "dirty snowballs," have left collections of dust, gas and ice from the formation of our solar system. Most are from two regions – the Querper Belt and the Oort Cloud – at the outer edge of our solar system. From time to time, they get out of these regions and start a journey around the sun.
As the comet approaches the sun, the ice sublimates (changes directly from solid to gas, jumping over the liquid phase), which creates its characteristic tail. The brightness of the comet depends on its size and the amount of ice and gas it contains.
Where to look
The brightness of the heavenly objects is on a scale that goes from the brightest – the sun – to the weakest. And it does not go in the direction you would think: the lower the number (the negative values), the brighter the object is.
At the moment 46P / Wirtanen is near magnitude 4, so it's not quite visible to the naked eye in the brightly polluted sky. It is believed that when Wirtanen is closest to the Earth, on Dec. 16 he must reach level 3.
So, if you're going to comet, do not forget to try to get to the darkest possible place. And do not look at your phone. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness, which in turn allows you to see darker objects.
If you have a pair of binoculars, use them.
Take a look at the southern sky where you will find Orion's most recognizable constellation, known as a hunter. On Dec. 8, Wirtanen will be about 32 degrees to the right of Rigel, Origen's brightest star. You can use your fingers to measure the distance.
What you will probably see if you find it is a fuzzy, blue circle. In the coming week, the comet will continue to rise higher in the sky. On December 16, it will be close to the plaids, a bunch of stars visible to the naked eye.
The downside is that the moon will be 65% illuminated on Dec. 16, making Wirtanen's vision more difficult. However, it will appear around 1 am so it is perfect for night owls, hoping to see.
A map of where you can find a 46P / Wirtanen comet when it's closest to Earth. (CBC News)
Article by Nicole Mortilar, originally published on CBC.ca
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