'Brightest Comet' set to pass by Earth on Sunday

Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

Comet 46P/Wirtanen will be closest to Earth on December 16, according to EarthSky, and is now the brightest comet in the sky.

But the meteors are not the only part of the celestial Christmas light display, with Comet Wirtanen passing the Earth this weekend as well. According the University of Maryland, its brightness varies with each approach-and 2018 is a particularly good year to try and catch the comet with a naked eye.

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. And as scientists reported, you will able to see the comet without a telescope.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen now resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleiades star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran.

Comet 46P Wirtanen is gracing our skies, in the late fall on 2018 and into the early winter of 2019. It should be just as visible for a week or two because its appearance will change gradually.

The Christmas Comet will make its closest approach at its peak on Sunday and will be visible to the naked eye.

Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

These constant swings by the sun come with a cost. With these, the comet was a fairly large patch, brighter towards the middle; no trace of a tail could be seen. Also, Wirtanen has a small nucleus. It has a diameter of about three-quarters of a mile - a relatively small comet.

Astronomical photographer Stephen Chadwick captured the comet last week. Wirtanen stands out among comets because its surface contains a lot of methane and carbon, as well as the usual water ice. The comet appears to be a close twin to comet Hartley 2, the second target of the Deep Impact mission.

NASA-sponsored ground, air and space-based observatories getting in on the action include NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar in California; the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Maunakea, Hawaii; the Hubble, Chandra, Swift and Spitzer space telescopes; and an airborne observatory known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

You can follow the project, called the Comet Wirtanen Observing Campaign, at its website here: http://wirtanen.astro.umd.edu.

This chart of the night sky shows the path of the comet as it moves closer to and away from Earth on its endless orbit out beyond the planet Jupiter and back. Find the darkest skies you can, and settle in for a show; you may see around 1 meteor per minute, including both fainter streaks and bright fireballs. But the atmosphere around the comet, or coma, is bigger than Jupiter.

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