Comet Leonard lights up the night sky this Christmas

Published: December 24, 2021 3:36 PM EST
Sky chart showing the position of Comet Leonard in the east about 2 hours before sunrise, Dec. 1-10. Binoculars may be required to observe the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eighty-thousand years ago, Comet Leonard zoomed past Earth for the first time. Now, it’s lighting up the skies once again. Leonard is the most anticipated and dazzling comet of the year. It was first discovered by Gregory Leonard, a senior research specialist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, earlier this year.

The comet came within 21 million miles of Earth — the closest it will get — on December 12, and is now heading out towards the sun. It’s traveling at a speed of 158,084 miles per hour, relative to Earth, according to the astronomy site EarthSky.

“This is the last time we are going to see the comet,” Leonard said in an interview posted by the University of Arizona. “It’s speeding along at escape velocity, 44 miles per second. After its slingshot around the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, and it may stumble into another star system millions of years from now.”

The comet can be seen at night about an hour after sunset above the southwestern horizon. Experts are saying to use Venus as a guide to help you find the comet. NASA says you may need binoculars to spot it.

This will be the last chance stargazers have for viewing before the comet travels deep into space — if it doesn’t break up first. The comet, which is mostly made up of space dust, rock and ice, could disintegrate at any time.

The NASA and ESA Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager caught several images of the comet passing Earth last week. They used the images to create a video.