A Newly Found Comet Might Become 2021’s Brightest Comet

Exciting news! A newly found comet might become 2021’s brightest comet. Astronomer Greg Leonard discovered the comet that now bears his name – C/2021 A1 (Leonard) – on January 3, 2021 at the Mount Lemmon Observatory in Arizona. Astronomers report that discovery images show a tail for the comet, suggesting we might see a nice tail as Comet Leonard draws closer to the Earth and sun. The comet is still far away, currently between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, heading inward. It’ll reach perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, around January 3, 2022. And so we’ll have a whole year to watch this comet get brighter, and brighter!

NASA/JPL estimates that Comet Leonard’s closest approach to Earth will be on December 12, 2021 (at around 14:13 UTC). Translate UTC to your time. It’ll pass Earth at the extremely safe distance of 21,690,493 miles (34,907,464 km).

Its orbit also suggests that the comet will then pass relatively close (about 2,632,000 miles) to planet Venus on December 18, 2021.

A Newly Found Comet Might Become 2021’s Brightest Comet
This is what a comet looks like – just a dot to our eyes – when it’s far from the sun. Astronomers spotted Comet Leonard (inside the tick marks) in early January 2021, a year before its closest sweep past our sun. The comet might be visible to the unaided eye by the end of this year. Read more about this image, which is via astronomer Filipp Romanov.

Estimates indicate it might reach a visual magnitude of around 5 or even 4 (the lower the brighter), and although at its brightest the comet will be very close to the horizon, we still might get very good views using binoculars during the days before closest approach to Earth, in early December 2021, with visibility to the eye alone still a possibility.

Nature provides us with sky events seen once in a lifetime. Comet Leonard might be one of these, as it seems to have a hyperbolic orbit, that is, an orbit that’ll carry it only once through the inner solar system, then out again into the depths of space.

In other words, after this current sweep close past our Sun, Comet Leonard won’t be seen again from Earth.

This comet will be initially visible from the Northern Hemisphere, and will become visible from the Southern Hemisphere in December 2021 and January 2022.

Will Comet Leonard be visible to the unaided eye? It’s possible. This might be this year’s brightest comet (unless a new brighter one is discovered). It will provide a nice spectacle to observers using long exposure cameras, binoculars and even the smallest telescopes.

A Newly Found Comet Might Become 2021’s Brightest Comet
This perspective on Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) shows its trajectory through our solar system. North is up. You can see that its orbit will cause it to be initially visible from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, and then from the Southern Hemisphere. Image via NASA/JPL.

Course: EarthSky

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