Fickle Comet Leonard, visible in Bay Area morning sky, makes closest approach to Earth

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Comet Leonard, one of this year’s most anticipated celestial sights, will be making its nearest approach to the Earth on Dec. 12. However, those hoping to catch a sight of Leonard over Bay Area skies this weekend might have to deal with cloudy conditions and the comet possibly falling apart, which will hamper its visibility in the early morning sky.

After a 35,000-year journey towards the sun, comet C/2021 was discovered last January by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard. As is tradition, the comet was dubbed Leonard after the person who found it.

According to NASA, comets are snowballs of frozen gases, rock, and dust that orbit the sun. As they approach the sun, the comet heats up trapped gas and dust form a miles-long tail that helps make it visible in the night sky.  

“This is a bright-ish comet that we see in the skies on average once per year. As it gets a little closer, it could become visible to the naked eye, making for some attractive pictures,” noted Marco Micheli, a European Space Agency Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre Astronomer.

Although it might be visible to the naked eye, NASA recommends using binoculars or a telescope to see the comet.

Leonard can be viewed in the early morning, about two hours before sunrise, until its closest approach to Earth on December 12. It will viewable in the eastern sky between the star Arcturus and the last star in the Big Dipper handle.

A sky chart showing the position of Comet Leonard in the East about 2 hours before sunrise, December 1st through 10th. Binoculars may be required to observe the comet.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help with your search, you can use a star chart app on your smartphone or use the Sky Live website to plot out where to view Leonard is in the sky.

Each night Leonard will appear closer to the ground before sinking under the horizon on the 13th. From Dec 14, the comet will appear in the western sky just after sunset near Venus but will quickly fade in brightness as it moves away from Earth.


Although comets are a common occurrence in the night sky, it is rare for a comet with a dust trail to be visible with the naked eye. Comet Neowise, which delighted celestial observers in 2020, is the most recent example.

Local observers will have two other obstacles to overcome to see Comet Leonard. One is storm clouds for an expected atmospheric river forecast to arrive Saturday night and continue through Monday that will obscure the night sky.  A second is the comet might be falling apart.

“The comet should be brighter and brighter,” University of Maryland astronomer Quanzhi Ye told Space.com, hypothesizing Leonard might be splitting up or simply running out of ice to vaporize as it approaches the sun. “If it’s not getting brighter, then something’s wrong, but we don’t know exactly what at this stage.”

Even if you head out early and can’t spot the comet, there is another reason to stargaze. The annual Gemini Meteor shower will be peaking in the night sky for the next several days and will provide a spectacular celestial show on its own.

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