Meet the First Comet of 2021!

~2 min
Artist's vision of comet Leonard

The year 2021 has only just started, and scientists already discovered a new comet that might become the brightest of this year. In today’s article, we’ll talk in detail about comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard).

What is Comet Leonard?

On January 3, 2021, an American astronomer Gregory J. Leonard discovered a new comet at the Mount Lemmon Observatory in Arizona, USA. It was named C/2021 A1 (Leonard) – the letter “C” means “non-periodic comet”, and “2021 A1” indicates that it was the first comet discovered in the first half of January 2021.

A specific feature of comet Leonard is its incredible speed – about 70 km/s! It’s moving 6 km/s faster than last year’s comet NEOWISE. Due to such speed, the comet’s position in the sky will be changing every day when we observe it from the Earth.

Comet Leonard has a hyperbolic trajectory, which means that it will cross the Solar System only once and then move far away from us and will never come back. So, you’ll only have one chance to see it.

How to See Comet Leonard?

Unfortunately, to observe comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard), you’ll have to wait almost a whole year. The comet will get closest to the Earth and will be best visible on December 12, 2021, passing by our planet at a distance of 34 million km or 21 million mi. After reaching the closest point to the Earth, comet Leonard will also pass quite close to Venus (4.2 million km or 2.6 million mi). By the way, in the history of astronomy, only 5 comets have been closer to the Earth than comet Leonard will be to Venus.

The comet is currently too dim to be observed even through telescopes. However, in December 2021, it might reach naked-eye visibility, shining with a magnitude of 5 or 4. On top of that, as comet Leonard will be positioned between the Sun and the Earth, its magnitude can even reach 1.5 due to the effect of forward scattering. You can take a look at the graph showing the estimated development of the comet's magnitude here.

If you live in the northern mid-latitudes, you can start observing comet Leonard already in September. It will be slowly passing near the constellations of Ursa Major, Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices. In the first half of December, the comet can be seen near the constellations Bootes, Serpens, Hercules, and Ophiuchus. After that, it will move into the southern celestial hemisphere.

It is too early to say if comet Leonard provides a spectacular astronomical show by the end of 2021, but let’s hope for it. After all, that’s what we love about comets – their ability to keep us on the edge of our seats, always waiting for a pleasant surprise. We wish you clear skies and happy stargazing!

Text Credit:
Image Credit:Vito Technology
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