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How to track Comet Leonard with online maps and live-position tools

It will come within a mere 21 million miles of us on December 12.

How to track Comet Leonard with online maps and live-position tools
Comet Leonard. [Photo: Franco Tognarini/Getty]

Comet Leonard—the biggest and brightest comet you’ll see all year—is headed to Earth. Well, relatively speaking: The celestial object has spent the past 35,000 years hurtling our way, and for those interested in catching a glance, it will come within a mere 21 million miles of us on December 12. Once it curves around the sun, astronomers say you’ll have to wait out Leonard’s full orbital period to see it again. (Which, just so we’re clear, is 80,000 years.)

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The comet, which was discovered by astronomer Greg Leonard only this past January, reflects larger amounts of sunlight as it approaches our star, which is why the coming weeks provide the optimal time to observe it. Astronomers say it should be the brightest when it’s closest, on December 12.

Leonard travels at almost 160,000 miles per hour, but, to us anyway, will still look like an object floating in slow-mo (because of that 21-million-mile distance from Earth). To see it, you’ll need to do a bit more prep than simply stumbling out of bed an hour early. Although, admittedly, that’s a great start: Until the middle of December, Leonard’s best visibility is in the early morning sky, which means getting up “very early, probably around 5 a.m.,” Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp tells NPR. After mid-December, the ideal viewing time will shift to evening.

“Comets are notoriously difficult to predict in terms of brightness and visibility,” NASA warns on its site. Even at peak brightness, Leonard “will probably require binoculars to spot,” though the agency adds, “There’s a chance it could be bright enough to see with the unaided eye, but again, with comets, you really never know.” So, take your chances with your naked eye, or, improve your odds by getting access to a telescope or bringing out a pair of binoculars.

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Next, here are NASA’s directions for how to spot it, using the sky and other celestial bodies as landmarks:

In the first couple of weeks of December, Comet Leonard can be found in the east before sunrise, passing between Arcturus and the handle of the Big Dipper. It approaches the horizon right around the time of its closest approach to Earth, meaning it’ll likely be brighter but more challenging to observe. It then switches over to being an evening object after around Dec. 14th, for just a little while after the Sun sets—as it begins its long haul outward from the Sun again, progressively fading in brightness.

If that sounds daunting, several trackers may be able to help you. As its name suggests, TheSkyLive.com offers a live position tracker. Or if you’re interested in decades more coordinates, a site run by the Atmospheres, Spatial Observations Laboratory and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, posts daily maps of comet positions going all the way back to 1996. (Manitoba Museum also has a nice printable map that shows you how to find it.) There’s also a Twitter account, @cometleonard, that every few hours posts the comet’s distance from us, magnitude, and nearby constellations.

If you’re worried you won’t find the comet regardless, but don’t want to miss this one-and-only chance to watch it shoot across the sky, Rome’s Virtual Telescope Project will be livestreaming the view from its observatory tomorrow, December 8.

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