The brightest comet of the year will be visible this Sunday

Hubble Space Telescope will track comet 46P/Wirtanen as it flies close by Earth.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen will be making a close pass of Earth December 16, 2018. It will be at its closest distance to Earth in over four centuries. It is a member of the Jupiter family of comets - their farthest point from the sun being near the orbit of Jupiter. It will be bright enough to see with the naked eye above the eastern horizon all month long, and can be seen even better with a telescope and/or binoculars. This 120 second image of the comet was taken Dec. 2 by an iTelescope 50 mm refractor located at an observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. The streak below the comet was produced by a rocket body (upper stage) passing through the telescope's field of view during the exposure. Specifically, the upper stage is the one that placed the Indonesian Garuda 1 communications satellite into geostationary orbit back in February of 2000. At the time of this image, the Garuda 1 upper stage was 15,880 miles from the observatory; Comet Wirtanen was 10.3 million miles distant. Image Credit: NASA
Comet 46P/Wirtanen will be making a close pass of Earth December 16, 2018. It will be at its closest distance to Earth in over four centuries. It is a member of the Jupiter family of comets - their farthest point from the sun being near the orbit of Jupiter. It will be bright enough to see with the naked eye above the eastern horizon all month long, and can be seen even better with a telescope and/or binoculars. This 120 second image of the comet was taken Dec. 2 by an iTelescope 50 mm refractor located at an observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. The streak below the comet was produced by a rocket body (upper stage) passing through the telescope's field of view during the exposure. Specifically, the upper stage is the one that placed the Indonesian Garuda 1 communications satellite into geostationary orbit back in February of 2000. At the time of this image, the Garuda 1 upper stage was 15,880 miles from the observatory; Comet Wirtanen was 10.3 million miles distant. Image Credit: NASA

On Sunday, Dec. 16, the comet named 46P/Wirtanen will make its 10 closest comet flybys of Earth in 70 years. And as scientists reported, you will able to see the comet without a telescope.

46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years. It was discovered photographically on January 17, 1948, by the American astronomer Carl A. Wirtanen.

With a width of 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers), 46P/Wirtanen orbits the Sun fairly quickly for a comet – once every 5.4 years – making it a short-period comet. At the time of closest approach, the comet will appear to be located in the constellation Taurus close to the Pleiades.

Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said, “Although the approach will be a distant 7.1 million miles (11.4 million kilometers, or 30 lunar distances) from Earth, it’s still a fairly rare opportunity.”

“This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries. This could be one of the brightest comets in years, offering astronomers an important opportunity to study a comet up close with ground-based telescopes, both optical and radar.”

Chodas said, “Comet Wirtanen has already been visible in larger amateur telescopes, and while the brightness of comets is notoriously difficult to predict, there is the possibility that during its close approach comet Wirtanen could be visible with binoculars or to the naked eye.”

An observation campaign is underway to take advantage of the close approach for the detailed scientific study of the properties of this “hyperactive” comet, which emits more water than expected, given its relatively small nucleus. The campaign, led by the University of Maryland, has worldwide participation across the professional and amateur astronomical communities.