Sky watchers have a lot to look forward to in December, as yet another bright comet is due for a close — and perfectly safe — encounter with Earth, reports Space.
Just a few short days after the Geminid meteor shower peaks on December 13, star gazers will be treated to a special appearance by Comet 46P/Wirtanen — hailed as the brightest comet to light up the sky in 2018, according to Comet Watch.
First spotted 70 years ago from the Lick Observatory in California, Comet 46P passes by our planet once every 5.4 years. But this year's flyby promises to be particularly memorable. Here's why.
Four Reasons Not To Miss Comet 46P
- Very close approach
Judging by comet standards, this is a particularly close encounter. By comparison, Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner — which is about to make an important entrance on September 10, as the Inquisitr recently reported — will be passing at five times the distance, approaching at 36.4 million miles (58.6 million kilometers) of Earth.Meanwhile, the "Incredible Hulk" green comet that streaked across the sky on August 7, as reported by the Inquisitr, only came 70 million miles (113.4 million kilometers) from our planet — 10 times farther away than Comet 46P will be in December.
In fact, this is the comet's closest approach in a long while. The last time Comet 46P came close to Earth was in 2013, but that visit only brought it 564 million miles (907 million kilometers) from our planet.
This year's close approach will occur on December 16, four days after the comet reaches perihelion, or the closest orbital point to the sun.
The video below, uploaded on YouTube by Comet Watch, details the comet's trajectory as it enters our solar system.
- Brightest comet of the year
This is because "46P/Wirtanen belongs to a small family of comets that boast a higher level of activity than expected for their nucleus size," explains Comet Watch. These comets "emit more water vapor than they should," which makes them shine a lot brighter than other comets of the same size.
This year, Comet 46P is expected to reach a visual magnitude of 3 — the highest in its entire history.
"This is the brightest prediction of known and future passes of this comet. This is also currently the brightest prediction for all comet passes in 2018," states Comet Watch.
- Visible with the naked eye
Thanks to its brightness and close proximity to our planet, there's a good chance that Comet 46P will be visible to the naked eye on the day of its closest approach to Earth.
As FiOS 1 News meteorologist Joe Rao points out, Comet 46P will become "about as bright as the faintest star in the Big Dipper," an asterism in the Ursa Major constellation (the "Big Bear").
"So, if you know where to look in the sky, it will be against the winter constellations of Taurus ('The Bull'), near the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters," says Rao.
- Great Observation Conditions
According to astronomers at the University of Maryland, Comet 46P will be visible to sky watchers both in the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere and will shine in the sky almost the entire night.
The comet will remain visible for many hours long after December 16, although its glow is bound to fade the farther away it gets from Earth. By February 3, 2019, its brightness will decrease to a magnitude of 8, according to the Comet Watch video.