Astronomy

CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A COMET: Today, Dec. 16th, Comet 46P/Wirtanen is making an historic close approach to Earth–only 11.5 million km away. This puts Wirtanen in the top 10 list of comet flybys during the Space Age. It’s easy to find in the constellation Taurus, shown here in a photo taken just last night by Alan Dyer of Gleichen, Alberta:

This is Comet Wirtanen 46P in Taurus on December 14/15, 2018 accompanied by a Geminid meteor, caught by chance of course. The meteor has left a yellowish “smoke” cloud.
Yellowish Aldebaran and the Hyades are at bottom, the pink California Nebula (NGC 1499) is at top, in Perseus, while the blue Pleiades are at centre. They form a nice colour contrast with the cyan-green comet. The Taurus Dark Clouds of interstellar dust are at left.
Comet Wirtanen was two days before its closest approach to Earth and nearly at its brightest. It was visible to the unaided eye.
I got a chance to capture this and other views after Chinook clouds cleared off near midnight on Dec 14/15.
This is a stack of 5 x 2-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800 with the Sigma 50mm lens at f/2.8. The meteor is from one of those frames. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker.[/caption]

“This is a tracked image with my camera mounted on a Star Adventurer tracker,” says Dyer. “A sporadic meteor dashed through the field of view during the 2-minute exposure–a busy sky!”

Dyer caught Comet 46P/Wirtanen splitting the gap between the Pleiades star cluster and Aldebaran, the red eye of the Bull. These are excellent landmarks that can guide you to the comet tonight. Indeed, you might need the help.

Although the comet is very close to Earth, it is not very bright. 46P/Wirtanen is a relatively small comet and, thus, barely visible to the unaided eye despite its proximity. Rural observers describe it as a faint misty cloud of 4th magnitude, about the size of a full Moon. It is nevertheless an easy target for digital cameras. Even a short exposure reveals the comet’s spherical form and emerald green hue.

Still can’t find it? Try using binoculars. Observers in urban areas say they are having good luck finding Wirtanen using hand-held optics. Simply scan the constellation Taurus for the green blob. Sky maps: Dec. 15, Dec. 16

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