Officially, it’s known as Comet 42P/Wirtanen, but if the weather cooperates, Highland Countians should be able to see what’s being called “the Christmas Comet” in the eastern sky at night.
The comet, named after astronomer Carl Wirtanen, will make its closest approach on Sunday Dec. 16, coming within 7.2 million miles of earth. To local residents it will appear to be a greenish, fuzzy star.
According to the website Space.com, it won’t be as pretty as Hale-Bopp was back in 1997, or as faint as Halley’s Comet in 1986, or the bust that Kohoutek turned out to be in the winter of 1973.
Meteorologist Jeff Sites of the National Weather Service office in Wilmington told The Times-Gazette that Mother Nature may not afford budding astronomers with conditions for good “seeing.”
“Unfortunately, we’re not looking at good weather here in the next couple of days,” he said. “There’s a system swinging up from the south bringing rain starting Friday and it’ll last through much of Saturday night.”
There may be a silver lining behind those dark clouds, Sites said, since Sunday afternoon the rain-maker will be pulling out, leaving behind partly cloudy skies that may give way to better viewing conditions both Sunday and Monday night.
“Sunday night we’ll have partly cloudy skies so it’ll be in and out if you’re trying to see the comet,” he said. “Next week we’re predicting it’ll be milder with partly cloudy to mostly clear nighttime skies as we get closer to the first day of winter, which is Friday.”
If the weather cooperates, Hillsboro High School science teacher Shannon Yochum said that seeing the comet shouldn’t be too difficult if one can locate two familiar objects in the night sky; the constellation Orion and the Pleiades star cluster, which itself resembles a fuzzy patch of light.
“We should be able to see it around 10 o’ clock at night,” she said. “And you’ll be able to see it better if you have a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars since it has what we call a “diffused” coma, so it won’t be super bright.”
She said the comet won’t have the trademark tail since it’s in the wrong position and finding it won’t be obvious unless a person knows where to look and is really searching for it.
“You’ll want to get as far out in the country as possible, away from the light pollution,” she said. “Then get familiar with the eastern sky and if you can find the constellation Orion, follow his belt upwards toward what looks like a blurred patch of light called the Pleiades.”
She said the comet will be below and to the left of the Pleiades, known to astronomers as “the seven sisters.”
The comet will appear higher in the night sky as the new year begins, gradually moving farther away from the earth and growing dimmer.
According to NASA, comet 46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years, so it will be back in Highland County’s night skies in the spring of 2024.
In contrast, the space agency said the most well-known of the comets, the one named after Sir Edmund Halley, won’t return until July 2061.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.