An undated image of Comet Leonard in the night sky accompanied by two galaxies. (Ganosh, shutterstock)
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Salt Lake City – The comet that some have called “out of the ordinary” will be visible this week in the morning sky.
With the help of local astronomers, you might be able to peek.
Skyandtelescope.org writes that Leonard’s Comet, which may be the brightest comet in 2021, can be seen through binoculars or a telescope about 90 minutes before sunrise – 5:30 a.m. local time until Sunday. Then, the comet will appear low in the evening sky just after sunset, said Marilyn Egger, training coordinator for the Bogdan Refractory Society of Salt Lake Astronomical Society.
It can be quite important.
“The big challenge (with Leonard) is figuring out where to look,” said Patrick Wiggins, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Solar System Ambassador in Utah.
Wiggins said that Leonard is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, appearing only as a vague little dot in optical equipment. He also warned that the comet would not resemble the classic comas and tail structure of brighter comets, or even images of Leonard taken by astrophotographers.
However, finding that new visitor early in the morning can be rewarding. To successfully hunt this quarry, astronomers say you can use a practice referred to as “interstellar hopping.”
Iger had been following Leonard closely, posting daily on Facebook charts of Leonard’s movement in the sky. She shared one of her charts with ksl.com, which shows how to identify Comet “Star Hope” Leonard on Wednesday morning.
According to Egger, that morning the comet will be hiding in an area of the sky near the planets Bootes and Corona Borealis. If these names bring back anxiety from your elective start in astronomy, Egger offers more guidance.
“Face east,” she said. “From the handle of the Great Dipper, Sagittarius to Arcturus, the brightest star in the eastern sky.”
This mnemonic arc of Arcturus is a staple of observational astronomy. If you cast your gaze in a gentle arc from the end of the handle of the Big Dipper until your eyes rest on the first, the bright star in the sky you will find is Arcturus.
After you’ve spotted this star, try to find a pair of fainter stars about 10 degrees below Arcturus. The blue circles in the Egger diagram represent a circle of sky with a diameter of 5 degrees. That’s how much of the sky is visible in 10×50 binoculars, Egger said, the simplest optical equipment that can detect a comet.
Interpreting the diagram further, another 5 degrees down and to the left, and you’ll be near the comet. Egger provided another diagram, which includes stars jumping to the base of the triangle formed by Arcturus, a second bright star in Boötes called Izar, and the brightest star in Corona Borealis, Alphecca. Both methods should help locate the comet.
“Right now, it’s kind of a blur. A faint white misty spot,” Egger said of Leonard’s face.
Wiggins’ description of the comet is similar. He adds that he is not optimistic about his ability to pinpoint the comet’s tail, saying that the entire structure looks like a “slightly elongated point”.
While space bloggers claim that the comet, discovered by astronomer Greg Leonard in Tucson, Arizona, last January, could be visible with the naked eye sometime this week, both Wiggins and Egger are not optimistic.
“Comets are very unexpected, so no one really knows what this will look like,” Wiggins said.
Binoculars are the best option for viewing the comet, Iger said, because they are not as difficult as a telescope. She added that seeing a similar comet a few years ago through binoculars was what sparked her love of astronomy.
Although humble, Comet Leonard didn’t come this way for nothing.
Space.com writes that Leonard is at the end of a 35,000-year, 325-billion-mile journey through the solar system. Like many other astronomical phenomena, Comet Leonard will appear only this time. But as in the Egger experiment, it may be all it takes once.
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