Stargazers lucky enough to catch clear skies are in for a treat: they may catch a parting glimpse of the Comet Catalina and the spectacular annual Geminid meteor shower.
Scientists first spotted Comet Catalina in 2013. Though it was initially mistaken for an asteroid, astronomers soon realized it was actually a comet originating from the icy Oort Cloud that surrounds our solar system. Back in November, the comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) made a quick turn around the sun and is rapidly approaching the Earth.
Catalina has been close enough for those with a telescope to check out for a few weeks, but has been blocked out by the Moon’s glare for the past few days. Starting this week, it should rocket back into view, and over the next few weeks its tail might be bright enough to see with the naked eye, Bob King writes for Sky & Telescope.
For the best views, stargazers should look towards the Virgo constellation just before sunrise. The comet should be visible in the Northern Hemisphere until mid-January, when it will start to fade from view. After traveling for millions of years from the solar system’s edge, comet Catalina will fly back the way it came, leaving our cosmic neighborhood forever.
Because this is the first time the comet Catalina has entered the solar system, astronomers aren’t sure what will happen to it, King writes:
Who really knows how bright Comet Catalina will get? Will it break into multiple comets after perihelion? First-time visitors from the Oort Cloud often do surprising things. No matter what Catalina has up its sleeve, its tour will be be a brief one.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of action in the skies to keep you busy while waiting for comet Catalina’s pre-dawn show. The annual Geminid meteor shower returns next week as the Earth passes through a trail of debris left by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Bruce McClure writes for EarthSky.org.
No telescope is needed as the shower peaks around 2 A.M. on the nights of December 13 and 14. The Geminids are considered to be some of the best and most reliable annual meteor showers, with as many as 120 meteors streaking across the sky every hour at their peak, according to NASA.
Unlike some other regular meteor showers, you don’t have to worry about finding the Gemini constellation to catch the show: Though the meteors start from the constellation, the will streak all over the sky. So grab some warm clothes, heavy blankets and some friends, and you should have everything you need for a great evening of stargazing.