Look up! Comet Wirtanen is coming

Its closest approach to Earth will occur on Sunday, Dec. 16. On the nights of Dec. 15 and Dec. 16, Comet Wirtanen will pass between the Pleiades and Hyades star cluster. It could become bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from the dark countryside without the moon present

For thousands of years, the night sky has been a place of entertainment and guidance. It was also the foundation of myths and superstitions.

Gary Boyle, known as The Backyard Astronomer and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said bright comets were deemed to be messengers of impending doom, such as drought, disease, famine and war.

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Located in the outer reaches of our solar system, comets are mountains of rock and ice that are sometimes nudged toward the inner solar system and round the sun. The outflow of gas and dust caused by solar heating generates a green fog around the comet and, most times, a dust tail and/or ion tail.

For the most part, comets are faint and only seen with a telescope.

However, Boyle said, such is not the case with the appearance of Comet 46P/Wirtanen, which is now visible in the southern sky. Throughout December, the comet will grow larger and brighter as it races northward.

Its closest approach to Earth will occur on Sunday, Dec. 16 at a safe distance of 11.5 million kilometres. On the nights of Dec. 15 and Dec. 16, Comet Wirtanen will pass between the Pleiades and Hyades star cluster.

Boyle said the comet could become bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from the dark countryside without the moon present.

As if this bright comet was not enough to enjoy, Boyle said, the annual Geminid meteor shower will peak overnight on Dec 13/Dec. 14. The moon will set at about 10:30 p.m., allowing a dark sky for the rest of the night. The best time to see the maximum number of meteors is after midnight toward dawn, when the constellation is highest in the sky.

Boyle said the shower will produce 120 meteors per hour as sand-size particles from asteroid 3200 Phaethon (a possible dead comet) completely vapourize as they strike our atmosphere at 35 kilometres per second.

“The Geminids also produce occasional fireballs that can light up the ground,” Boyle said. “This is a must-see event.

For more information on Comet Wirtanen, the Geminid meteor shower and other astronomy events, go online to wondersofastronomy.com.

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