Christmas Comet Leonard has been captured dazzling the night sky

Stargazers on Earth have been chasing the comet, a mass of dust, rock and ice in space about half a mile (one kilometer) wide.

Comet Leonard made it closest to Earth on December 12, being 21 million miles (34 million km) from our planet. The comet will be visible in the skies of the northern and southern hemispheres until the end of this month.

It travels close to the sun on January 3, traveling 56 million miles (90 million kilometers) from our star, just over half the distance from Earth. If it didn’t disintegrate, NASA said, its trajectory would catapult it into interstellar space, never to return.

NASA also captured an image of the comet with its Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory.

The high-speed comet appears from Earth to crawl

The comet was discovered in January by astronomer Greg Leonard, senior research specialist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. He began tracking the mysterious light on January 3rd.

“The fact that the tail was visible in those images was fascinating, considering that the comet was about 465 million miles away (from Earth) at that point, close to Jupiter (from Earth),” he said this month.

It’s also a superfast comet, smashing through the inner solar system at 158,084 miles per hour (71 kilometers per second), but it will still look like a slow-moving object due to its distance from Earth, according to EarthSky.

Use Venus, which is currently clearly visible in the southwest sky around sunset, as a way to help you find the comet.

“This comet will appear very low above the horizon just after sunset,” Leonard said, beginning on December 13. “It will pass across the horizon between west and southwest between now and Christmas time. The fact that it is so close to the horizon makes it difficult to spot this comet.”

Most comets with long orbital periods, such as Comet Leonard, come from the Oort Cloud, a large icy region that surrounds our solar system. It is so far from Earth that no spacecraft has visited it.

“When you win the tug of war with the gravitational pull of our solar system, the object may start to move inward, accelerating as it gets closer to the sun,” Leonard said.

As comets approach the sun, these giant ice balls begin to shed some of their material, forming a halo or coma around the body. Dust and gas flow behind comets to form their extremely long tails. Most comets become visible to us only as they travel through the inner solar system, where the Earth is, during their long orbits of the sun.

Understanding comets could open a window into the formation of our sun and solar system because they act like cosmic time capsules of material.

“As much as we have great knowledge about comets, they are still difficult to predict with respect to their size, shape, chemical composition and behavior,” Leonard said. A wise and famous comet discoverer once said: “Comets are like cats – both have tails, and both do exactly what they want.”

Ancestors of ancient humans may have witnessed Leonard’s Comet during its last passage to Earth about 80,000 years ago. But it will not come again.

“This is the last time we’ll see the comet,” Leonard said. “It’s accelerating at its escape speed, 44 miles per second. After its slingshot around the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, and it might get stuck in another star system millions of years from now.”


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