See Comet Leonard at its Best

Comet Leonard and M3
Comet Leonard makes a spectacular pairing with the intense globular cluster M3 within the constellation Canes Venatici on December 3, 2021.
Martin Mobberley

Go out the subsequent clear night time otherwise you would possibly miss it! Northern Hemisphere skywatchers have a restricted window through which to view Comet Leonard (C/2021 A1), which can seemingly change into the brightest comet of the year. The excellent news is that whereas time is brief, Leonard is predicted to succeed in peak brightness in the course of the subsequent two weeks. Currently a binocular object round magnitude 7, the comet may change into as vivid as fifth magnitude because it travels eastward throughout Boötes, Serpens, and Ophiuchus within the predawn sky.

Comet Leonard orbit
Comet Leonard’s orbit takes it out to the Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical repository of billions of comets that orbits the Sun out to just about 1 / 4 the gap to the Alpha Centauri star system. Leonard has traveled about 3,500 a.u. for a quick spin across the internal solar system earlier than returning to this frozen fastness. Its place is proven for December twelfth, when it comes closest to the Earth.
NASA, JPL Horizons

Senior analysis specialist Greg Leonard at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory close to Tucson, Arizona, found the comet on January 3, 2021, when it was little greater than a faint, distant speck. Since then, it is inched steadily nearer to each the Sun and Earth and can attain perihelion — closest strategy to the Sun — on January 3, 2022. Three weeks prior, on December twelfth, it’s going to go nearest the Earth at a distance of 21.7 million miles (34.9 million km).

While Comet Leonard will not evaluate to the splendor of final July’s Comet NEOWISE, it is more likely to change into faintly seen with the unaided eye from a darkish sky inside a couple of days of December twelfth. That additionally occurs to be the the date, give or take, that it’ll succumb to the glare of morning twilight low within the jap sky. You’ll see it greatest with a pair of binoculars or a telescope from places with a darkish jap sky. Use this light pollution map that will help you find the perfect spot in your metropolis or area. Fortunately, the Moon can be round new part and never a priority.

Comet Leonard path early December
Comet Leonard crosses via Boötes and Serpens within the upcoming week. Stars are proven to about magnitude 6.
Stellarium with additions by Bob King

What will we see? Comets may be difficult to foretell as a result of they’ve a penchant for unpredictability. Composed of fragile honeycombs of ices each unique and acquainted, they generally break aside when nearing the Sun. Solar heating vaporizes the ice, creating pressures inside and with out the comet’s physique that may generally disrupt it, tearing it aside.

It’s even potential that one thing of the kind is going on proper now with Leonard — after steadily brightening, it has lately proven indicators of plateauing. Assuming its nucleus hangs collectively, binoculars ought to reveal the coma as a delicate patch of sunshine, brighter towards the middle, about half the Moon’s obvious diameter. With averted imaginative and prescient you might glimpse a level or extra of faint tail pointing upward to the northwest.

Keep an in depth eye on Leonard on as many mornings as potential. Should the nucleus break aside on account of solar heating or different forces, it may expertise a modest outburst after which fade quickly. Contrariwise, ahead scattering from cometary mud, as mentioned in this previous article, may briefly pump up its brightness and assure a naked-eye view. We wait with bated lens and telescopes to see what Leonard’s subsequent transfer can be.

Comet Leonard in twilight
Comet Leonard races throughout Serpens and into Ophiuchus throughout its final mornings of visibility earlier than transitioning into night twilight.
Stellarium with additions by Bob King

As the comet is now rapidly approaching each the Earth and the Sun, it is dashing sooner throughout the sky. For the subsequent few mornings (via December eighth) you may discover it within the constellation Boötes, not removed from the sensible, orange large Arcturus. Hold this star’s hand, and you will have an in a position information to Leonard. On Saturday morning, December 4th, the comet stands 8.5° to the star’s higher left and simply 5° away on the sixth. Although the comet’s altitude decreases every morning, this can be offset by its rising brightness. Peak magnitude round 4.5–5 is predicted from about December tenth to December fifteenth.

Staring on round December twelfth, Leonard swings into the night sky and slowly distances itself from the Sun whereas additionally fading. This is when Southern Hemisphere observers can have the perfect view, whereas nightfall will seemingly swallow the sight for northerners. I made my final Leonard commentary in 10×50 binoculars and a 15-inch telescope in the course of the November lunar eclipse. With the moon tucked deeply in shadow at mid-eclipse, I stole views of its fluffy coma, compact “fuzzy-star” nuclear area and beautiful degree-long tail.

As I write this, I’m on a cruise ship dashing northeast at 15 knots an hour towards the centerline of the December 4th complete solar eclipse. With luck, we’ll arrive beneath clear skies close to South Georgia Island off the coast of South America and, if profitable, I hope to share photographs of the singular occasion tomorrow proper right here.

I point out my location and function as a result of from latitude -60° south Comet Leonard is burrowed deep under my horizon. And by the point I return house will probably be misplaced in twilight glare. I encourage all of you lucky sufficient to be in the appropriate place to benefit from your viewing alternatives. Find a darkish location and search this dusty phantom that has lastly arrived at your door after a 35,000-year pilgrimage from the outer solar system. Oh and please say “hi!” for me.



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