ESA / NASA / NRL / SoloHI / Guillermo Stenborg
Astronomers have been following what has been described as this year’s brightest comet, closely, since it was first discovered at the beginning of 2021.
Despite its brightness, it was somewhat difficult to spot with the human eye on Earth, but spacecraft from NASA and the European Space Agency were able to capture Comet Leonard, during its continuous infiltration journey towards the inner solar system.
Two spacecraft that monitor the Sun got an excellent view of the comet, as the European Space Agency released a clip on Tuesday showing Comet Leonard – nicknamed “Christmas Comet” – blasting into space.
When Comet Leonard, a mass of dust, rock and ice about half a mile (1 kilometer) wide in space, makes its closest pass to the Sun on January 3, 2022, its 40,000-year journey will end.
Prior to achieving this path, NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the SECCHI/HI-2 telescope, which has been observing the comet since early November, was able to provide a moving image of the comet also known as C/2021 A1.
The observatory was able to create an animated “difference image” to highlight the differences between the comet’s current frame and the previous frame. The images of the differences are useful for seeing subtle changes in Leonard’s ion tail (the path of ionized gas flowing out of a comet’s body or nucleus), which becomes longer and brighter at the end of the clip.
Well, Comet Leonard has definitely started a new mode over the past couple of days. Check out the tail work! 😱pic.twitter.com/QzNWL2UjNf
– Karl Batams (@SungrazerComets) December 16, 2021
The Solar Orbital Imager (SoloHi) instrument on NASA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, was also able to capture a video between December 17 and 19, 2021, showing the comet’s lines diagonally across the field of view with the Milky Way in the background.
Comet Leonard on its way to the Sun
Its 40,000-year journey will end on January 3 – but two spacecraft watching the sun pick up its approach: https://t.co/VXIUvJXGO1
– NASA Sun and Space (NASASun) December 21, 2021
Venus and Mercury can also be seen in the top right of the video. The flower appears brighter and moves from left to right.
SoloHI will continue to monitor the comet until it leaves its field of view on December 22, 2021.
“When SoloHi recorded these images, the comet was almost between the Sun and the spacecraft, with gas and dust tails pointing toward the spacecraft,” the European Space Agency said in a statement.
The comet passed near the Earth on December 12, and Venus on December 17, and now continues its journey towards the sun, where it will be at its closest point to its perihelion, on January 3, 2022, (exactly one year after the discovery of the comet), at a distance of 90 million A kilometer from our star, just over half the distance it has passed close to Earth. And if it didn’t scatter, its trajectory would catapult it into interstellar space, never to return.
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