Comet 46P/Wirtanen to Make Closest Approach to Earth in Over Four Centuries

46P/Wirtanen was discovered on January 17, 1948, by the American astronomer Carl Wirtanen.

This comet is a member of the Jupiter family of comets — their farthest point from the Sun being near the orbit of Jupiter.

With a width of 0.7 miles (1.1 km), it orbits the Sun fairly quickly for a comet — once every 5.4 years — making it a short-period comet.

Although the December 16 approach will be a distant 7.1 million miles (11.4 million km, or 30 lunar distances) from Earth, it’s still a fairly rare opportunity.

At the time of the closest approach, the comet will appear to be located in the constellation Taurus close to the Pleiades.

“This will be the closest 46P/Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries,” said Dr. Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“What’s more, this could be one of the brightest comets in years, offering astronomers an important opportunity to study a comet up close with ground-based telescopes, both optical and radar.”

“This comet has already been visible in larger amateur telescopes, and while the brightness of comets is notoriously difficult to predict, there is the possibility that during its close approach comet 46P/Wirtanen could be visible with binoculars or to the naked eye.”

An observation campaign is underway to take advantage of the close approach for detailed scientific study of the properties of this ‘hyperactive’ comet, which emits more water than expected, given its relatively small nucleus.

Led by University of Maryland astronomers, the campaign has worldwide participation across the professional and amateur astronomical communities.

This article was originally published by Sci-news

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