Looks like space was saving its best for last in 2021, as the arrival of the newly found comet Leonard will be one of the most visible this year.
The comet, discovered by Greg Leonard, a senior researcher at the University of Arizona, was first spotted at the Mount Lemmon Observatory just outside of Tucson, Arizona on Jan. 3.
Robert Lunsford with the American Meteor Society told USA TODAY the comet won’t be the most spectacular one ever but will be “the brightest comet this year.” With the help of binoculars and telescopes, people across the country can already begin to spot it in the sky, and it won’t be long before people can view the comet with the naked eye for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
What makes comet Leonard special?
Although recently discovered, the comet won’t be sticking around for long. Astrophysicist and founder of The Virtual Telescope Project Gianluca Masi told USA TODAY Leonard is a long-period comet, meaning it doesn’t come around often. In fact, the comet hasn’t passed by Earth in over 70,000 years, and after it passes by the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, never to be seen on Earth again.
“This makes the observation of this comet even more exciting, as we will say ‘farewell’ to this icy, little world,” Masi said.
Masi noted that comets are unpredictable and they can often change course, making them more or less noticeable. However, if Leonard stays on course, Lunsford says it will have a magnitude brightness of four, which is the same brightness as average stars.
When, and how, can you see it?
Unless you are living in Antarctica, Lunsford said anyone on the planet can view the comet right now. From now through Dec. 13, the comet can be observed in the morning sky using binoculars or a telescope. On Dec. 12, it will be 21.7 million miles away from Earth, the closest it will get to the planet. If you are able to get away from light pollution, you’ll have a better chance to see it.
“It’s heading downward with each passing morning,” Lunsford said. “You probably could catch some tail of the comet.”
Masi pointed out the star will appear next to the global cluster of stars, Messier 3, on Dec. 3. On Dec. 6, it will appear left of the star Arcturus, one of the brightest stars seen from Earth and a “bright, orange star you can’t miss,” according to Lunsford. That will also be the day people may be able to view it with the naked eye.
Beginning Dec. 14, the comet will be viewable in the night sky and for a few days, no instruments won’t be needed to see it. Lunsford said it will appear next to Venus, and viewers will notice the comet in between the horizon and Venus right after sunset on Dec. 17. On the early hours of Dec. 18, Leonard will be 2.6 million miles away from Venus.
It will fade away each day in the night sky, but people will be able to spot it, with instruments, all the way up to around Christmas.
For those unable to see it, the Virtual Telescope Project will stream the comet on Dec. 3 at 10 p.m. ET.
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.