News – The brightest comet of the year is slowly coming closer


CBC News

Saturday 8 December 2018, 15:50 – If you have a clear sky and you are willing to dare to cool the temperature, you can go to a dark place and look for a passing visitor.

Comet 46P / Wirtanen, first discovered in 1948, will have the closest encounter with the Earth on Dec.16. But it is already visible in the sky.

Although it is the brightest comet of the year and the 10th closest comet in modern times, do not expect it with a well-defined tail, a comic punque.

At this moment, Wirtanen, a small comet with a mere 1.2 kilometers in diameter, is a fuzzy blue object on the southern sky. The recent photographs show a thin tail, but not very significant. Wirtanen is likely to get brighter as December 12 will become the closest approach to the sun.

Malcolm Park captured this comet of 46P / Wirtanen from Prince Edward, Ont., On the night of December 5 (Malcolm Park)

Comets, often referred to as "dirty snow balls", are the remaining collections of dust, gas and ice from the creation of our solar system. Most of them are from two areas – the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud – at the outer edge of our solar system. From time to time, they have been excluded from these areas and began sailing in the sun.

When the comet approaches the sun, its ice is sublimed (it changes directly from solid to gas, jumps the liquid phase), producing a characteristic tail. Comet clarity depends on the size and amount of ice and gas it contains.

Where to look

The clarity of heavenly objects is on a scale that ranges from the brightest – the sun – the brightest. And it will not go in the direction you would think: the lower the number (negative values), the clearer the object.

Currently, 46P / Wirtanen has a size of 4, so it is not visible to the naked eye in light-stained sky. It is estimated that if Wirtanen is in its closest position to Earth, it should reach size 3 on December 16.

So if you're going to look into the comet, make sure you're trying to get the darkest spot. And do not look for your phone. Let your eyes adapt to the darkness, allowing you to see objects with dim light.

If you have a binocular, use it.

Take a look at the southern sky where you can find a very recognizable constellation Orion, known as a hunter. On December 8, Wirtanen is about 32 degrees to the right of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion's "leg." Use your fingers to measure distance.

What is likely to be seen is a fuzzy, blue circle. During the next week the comet will continue to climb in the sky. On December 16, it will be located near Pleiades, the star stars visible to the naked eye.

The downside is that the month will be 65% on December 16, so it's hard to see Wirtanen. However, it will be about 1 hour, so ideal for night owls to hope to get a look.

A map where you will find a 46P / Wirtanen comet when it is closest to Earth. (CBC News)

Article by Nicole Mortillaro, originally published at


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