Is That Santa Or Leonard The Christmas Comet? Where To See Him Fly In The Night Sky

Leonard, the Christmas comet, is visible to the naked eye for some

The night when Santa Claus soars through the air is fast approaching, but there’s something else to see in the evening sky even before that. Comet Leonard is still making its way across the solar system. Under the right conditions, you don’t even need binoculars or a telescope to see it, and in fact it could easily be mistaken for the jolly old head elf himself.

Cataloged as C/2021 A1, Leonard the "Christmas Comet," as it is being affectionately referred to this time of year, has been visible with binoculars or telescopes since early December. Folks could catch a glimpse of the frozen object just above the Southwest horizon in the early mornings just before sunrise.

Astronomer Gregory J. Leonard first spotted the comet on Jan. 3 from the Mount Lemmon Infrared Observatory in Arizona. Scientists say the icy ball started back towards our solar system 35,000 years ago, 325 billion miles from the sun. The comet’s commute has it making its closest approach to our sun in January 2022.

Beginning December 8, 2021, Comet Leonard’s brightness hovered just around magnitude +6.3 on the scale used by astronomers. That would be just bright enough to see with the unaided eye, but only in perfect conditions. Just before sunrise doesn’t count, so some form of magnification was needed.

Comet Leonard apod nasa
NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day (APOD) 12/15/21 Shows Leonard

Now, the comet’s path puts it in a different location and time for optimal viewing. Leonard now makes his appearance low above the southwest horizon about an hour or so after sunset. If it’s dark enough, you can spot the comet with the naked eye just below and to the left of Venus. It will look like a fuzzy star, and you may be able to spot its tail pointing away from the sun. Binoculars or a telescope are a better bet. Next month, Comet Leonard rounds the sun on Jan. 3. It will be at its brightest then, but won’t last long after that.

What’s more, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Comets take tens of thousands of years to make their orbit. The last time Leonard rounded the sun was 70,000 years ago.

Image Credit: University of Hertfordshire Observatory, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons