Santa’s sleigh may well be eclipsed this year by the passage of a comet visible to the naked eye towards the end of December.
A hundred amateur astronomers gathered Saturday night at Ambrose Christian University, southwest of Calgary, to observe comet 46P / Wirtanen, discovered in 1948 by Carl Wirtanen.
“It’s a messenger from the sky of the East,” says astronomy professor Stephen Jeans, referring to the star announcing the coming of the biblical messiah. “It’s a wonderful way to start the winter season. “
46P / Wirtanen completes an orbit every 5.4 years. Although it was discovered in 1948, it had never been so close to Earth as it will be this weekend. It will pass at a distance of 7.1 million miles from our planet, which is equivalent to about 30 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. It will not come that close again until 2038. “It’s exciting,” exclaims amateur astronomer Jesus Salazar. “We can watch it regularly, but it is never so bright. There are often comets in the sky, but you can only see them using a telescope,” he continues.
Comet 46P / Wirtanen will pass by the Earth only four days after getting the closest to the sun, which adorns it with a long tail because of the melting of its ice caused by the heat of the sun.
For Shawna LeBlanc, another amateur astronomer, “it’s fascinating to think you can see it with the naked eye.”
The comet will be visible between 19:30 and 20:30 ET around the constellation of Taurus, near the Pleiades star cluster. It is distinguished by its green glow.