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New Comet Leonard may light up our sky later this year

Discovered in January, the comet may be bright enough to see without a telescope.
Credit: Eileen Rollen
Comet NEOWISE lighting up the sky over Florida in July 2020.

TAMPA, Fla — Last summer, sky lovers everywhere were able to watch Comet NEOWISE streak brightly across our sky. In 2021, a new comet may bring a celestial show.

The comet is called Comet Leonard, cataloged C/2021 A1, and was discovered by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard on Jan. 3 at the Mount Lemmon Observatory just northeast of Tucson, Arizona.

According to Space.com, when Leonard discovered the comet, it was a very faint object of magnitude 19. That is nearly 160,000 times dimmer than the faintest stars visible to the naked eye. 

Professional astronomers can observe anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen comets on any given night. But comets bright enough to excite those of us without big telescopes are a bit unusual, appearing one or two years to every 10-15 years, on average.

Comet Leonard is traveling in a closed orbit and probably visited the vicinity of the sun at least once before, about 70,000 years ago. 

The comet’s closest approach to both the Earth and the Sun will be later this year. On Dec. 12, it will pass within 21.7 million miles of Earth, and on Jan. 3, 2022, exactly one year after discovery, it will pass within 57.2 million miles of the Sun.

Space.com says that when using standard power-law formulas, taking into account how bright the comet is now versus how much closer it will be by year's end (to both Earth and the Sun), the current expectation is that Comet Leonard could reach as bright as fourth magnitude.

That means it could be bright enough to see without optical aid in a dark sky.

At a fourth magnitude, it would be much dimmer than Comet NEOWISE was in 2020. NEOWISE reached an estimated magnitude one. A lower number means the object is brighter. 

Although the best views may be with binoculars during the days before the comet's closest approach to Earth, in early December 2021, visibility to the eye alone will be a possibility.

Comet NEOWISE won’t be seen in our sky again for 6,800 years. 

EarthSky.org says that Leonard 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 orbit past our Sun, Comet Leonard won’t be seen again from Earth.

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