Comet Leonard is the brightest comet of 2021 and over the last week or so has become visible to the naked eye. This week the comet has begun to appear at dusk, bright enough to be seen clearly with binoculars by keen skywatchers. But be quick, this is your last chance to spot the Christmas cosmic visitor before it disappears from view.
After initial concern that it was fading too soon, casual and professional observers have reported seeing Leonard clearly, with some spectacular photographs to prove it.
The comet, technically called C/2021 A1 was first discovered by astronomer G. J. Leonard at the Mount Lemmon Observatory on January 3, 2021, precisely a year before the comet’s scheduled closet passage near the Sun. It made its closest pass to our planet on December 12, when it flew 34.9 million kilometers (21.7 million miles) from Earth.
It's currently at its brightest, even though it's now heading away from us. To spot it, the comet "will appear very low above the horizon just after sunset," according to Leonard, who works at the University of Arizona. "It will skim across the west-southwestern horizon between now up until around Christmastime."
On December 17, the comet will pass very close to Venus (which will be the bright object in the sky facing west), making it easier to spot.
"The fact that it's so close to the horizon makes this comet a bit challenging to observe," Leonard cautioned. However, "I feel there is going to be something to be seen even for the casual observer," he added. "Find yourself a dark sky with a good view of the horizon, bring binoculars and I think you may be rewarded."
Before passing near the Sun in January and starting its long journey out of the Solar System, Comet Leonard will pass just 4.2 million kilometers (2.6 million miles) from Venus. This is the closest known passage between a comet and Venus and astronomers believe that there’s a chance the comet could create a meteor shower on the second innermost planet.
"There is a small chance Venus will pass close enough to the comet's path where it may pick up some dust grains in its atmosphere, producing a meteor shower on our neighboring planet," Leonard explained.
If your location or weather is not conducive to comet spotting, however, you can console yourself with some awesome footage snapped by China's commercial optical astronomical satellite, Yangwang(仰望)-1.