A true ‘last-chance-to-see’ in the skies this week

If things go well this week, the sky gods will reward stargazers with a brilliant celestial Christmas present; a naked eye comet! To make things better, southern hemisphere observers have a ringside seat for this celestial spectacle. The comet will be visible after sunset and should be relatively easy to find because it is quite near Venus in the sky.

The comet is called C/2021 A1 Leonard. It was discovered by the astronomer G.J. Leonard on January 3, 2021 from the Mount Lemmon Observatory, in Arizona. Comet Leonard takes almost 80,000 years to complete one orbit of the sun. However, following its closest approach to the sun on January 3, 2022, its orbit will change shape and Comet Leonard will be ejected from the solar system. This means the next few weeks really do present a once in a lifetime chance to spot this fascinating object. Comet Leonard was closest to Earth on December 12, when it was just under 35,000,000km from us.

It is notoriously difficult to predict how bright a comet will get. Some astronomers think Comet Leonard will be bright enough to see with the unaided eye. Others are not so sure. That is all part of the fun of hunting comets, and is why I am very excited about the next few nights.

To locate the comet you will have to find a spot well away from city lights with an unobstructed view towards the west-southwest. To give yourself the best chance, I would advise using a good pair of binoculars to help spot the comet before trying with your eyes. This week’s chart shows the comet’s position each night at 10.45pm. This is when the sky should just be dark enough to begin your comet hunt. Look for a dim green smudge of light at the indicated position.

I hope you get a chance to see Comet Leonard before it departs on the next stage of its cosmic journey.

 - Ian Griffin

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