Have you heard of 46P/Wirtanen – the throne comet Will it come closest to the Sun and Earth next December? This comet will approach the Sun on December 12 and immediately after, on December 16, it will fly past the Earth. This astronomical event will provide space exploration enthusiasts with the opportunity to see comets with their own eyes (in dark places, binoculars can be used to increase the efficiency of observation) – an interesting celestial object full of stars In the universe.
At present, the help of a telescope is still necessary to observe comet 46P/Wirtanen. However, the comet is growing brighter and will reach sufficient brightness to be seen with the naked eye before the end of 2018.
Comet Wirtanen on November 4, photographed through an 11-inch telescope. Author: Martin Mobberley
HOW DISTANT WILL COMET 46P/WIRTANEN BE FROM US?
According to University of Maryland astronomers, Wirtanen’s pass near Earth will this time be the 10th closest approach to Earth by a comet ever recorded in modern times.
When the comet comes closest, it will be 11.5 million kilometers away, or 30 times the distance between the Moon and Earth. Although this number is still not enough to beat the record established in June 1770 by comet D/1770 L1 Lexell (less than 6 times the Earth-Moon distance); But compared to most comets, Wirtanen’s next “visit” is still considered “near.”
The 2018 approach to Earth was the closest approach to comet 46P/Wirtanen since 1948. Source: astro.vanbuitenen.nl
Wirtanen belongs to the Jupiter comet group. The gravitational field of the solar system’s largest planet has pulled comets from the Kuiper Belt into its orbit around the Sun. Wirtanen is a short-period comet with a period of only 5.4 years. Therefore, this comet has already approached Earth’s orbit several times. However, once the Earth was located very far from the comet. 2018 will mark its closest approach to Earth in 70 years since its discovery by American astronomer Carl A. Wirtanen on January 17, 1948.
So, at such a close distance, how bright will this comet be? No one has a certain answer, because comets are always very difficult to predict. It is predicted that Wirtanen can reach an apparent magnitude between +3.5 and +6, meaning we can observe it even with the naked eye, although diffuse objects such as comets are often more difficult to see. detect only stellar points of the same luminosity.
HOW TO FIND COMET WIRTANEN?
Wirtanen’s brightness gradually increases as the comet approaches Earth. In early November, with an apparent magnitude of +8, it became the brightest comet in the sky today, but still not bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. By mid-December, the brightness will be between +3.5 and +6, and 46/Wirtanen will be visible to the naked eye as a faint, diffuse object in the night.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen, photographed on November 7, 2018. Author: Martin Mobberley
Position of Comet Wirtanen on December 1st. Source: Stellarium
A characteristic sign when talking about comets is the comet’s tail. Based on the relative position between Earth and Wirtanen at the closest distance, the ion tail will be hidden behind the comet’s head and therefore out of view from Earth.
It’s best to prepare binoculars and a telescope, then find an open location with wide, dark skies away from city lights to ensure the clearest view possible. Even if you don’t have access to binoculars and a telescope, don’t worry, you still have the opportunity to admire this amazing event online thanks to the Virtual Telescope project.
Additionally, if you spend time “following” for several weeks, you will also “pocket” a lot of interesting knowledge about 46P/Wirtanen. For example, if you look at the mass of gas surrounding a comet – also known as a coma – you will find that its size is even larger than that of Jupiter! In addition, with the help of optical instruments, you can distinguish the movement of the comet against the starry sky. In early November, the comet’s speed was about 34,200 km/h (9.5 km/s); The closer we get to Earth, the more this speed increases. By observing with a small telescope for about 30 minutes, you can feel the relative movement of Wirtanen relative to the stars.
To locate Comet Wirtanen on December 15, first search for the constellation Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster, then determine the comet’s location. Source: Stellarium
To update the latest information about the location, brightness, distance… of this comet, you can download the Stellarium software, and perform a few simple steps to track this comet with Stellarium. . See instruction article
On December 16, 2018, Wirtanen will approach Earth, 4 days after this star reaches perihelion (the closest point to the Sun). Since the comet will be very active as it approaches the Sun, its brightness will also peak during this period. Find a place with dark and clear skies to enjoy this exciting event!
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