You'd Better Watch Out, The Christmas Comet Is Coming to Town

Katie Ramirez
December 13, 2018

Stargazers have something extra to look forward to this holiday season: The brightest comet of 2018 will pass closest to Earth on December 16.

"We have not had a comet this well placed and bright for many years", he said.

A map from Sky & Telescope demonstrating Comet 64P/Wirtanen's path through the sky.

Every 5.4 years, the comet 46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun, swinging through Earth's skies on its way.

Astronomy Ireland has confirmed that Comet Wirtanen will fly nearer to Earth than at any other point during our lifetime.

What is rare is how close this comet will be to Earth.

It's going to be practically skimming Earth at a distance of just 11.6 million kilometres (7.2 million miles), around 30 times the average distance between Earth and the Moon.

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Comet 46P/Wirtanen was discovered in January 1948 by American astronomer Carl Wirtanen, and it's one of just a handful of comets that's (sometimes) visible to the naked eye - it gets about as bright as a faint star.

To see it, find Orion, the archer, and follow the line of his arm through the centre of the bow diagonally right and up. Go the same distance again and you'll see the Pleiades star cluster (also called the Seven Sisters), which is so bright you will probably have already noticed it as a bright smudge in the corner of your eye.

The historic sighting of Comet 46P/Wirtanen will be among the 10 closest comet approaches to earth since 1950, according to astronomy website Sky and Telescope. You can maximize its brightness by observing from a dark sky site where there's no light pollution.

It's been visible for a few days from a telescope or with good binoculars, and will remain in view for another week or so - but tonight is the best chance for those of us who don't have any special viewing equipment.

But there's no rush, for the comet will be visible all night until 4:26am the following morning.

Anyone hoping to observe a comet from the ground should try and use a decent pair of binoculars.

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