Sky watchers waiting for Earth pass-by of comet named after Arizona astronomer

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Sky watchers will want to  keep eye to the sky this weekend, as Comet 2021 A-1, also known as Comet Leonard, is expected to pass by Earth.

The comet is named after Gregory Leonard, a Tucson astronomer who discovered it earlier this year. Leonard discovers and tracks near-Earth asteroids, and in the process of doing that, he oftentimes may stumble upon comets, and that was the case with Comet Leonard back in January.

“I was lucky enough to find the very first comet of 2021, and in this case, it happens to be a very special comet,” said Leonard.

Leonard is an astronomer with the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, which is based out of the University of Arizona. Leonard said this was not his first comet discovery. In fact, it is his 10th, and he has discovered a few others afterwards.

Comet Leonard, however, is special in that unlike most comets discovered that are very distant and never going to be seen by a casual observer…

“This comet is coming close enough to the Sun, close enough to the Earth, where we have an opportunity to view it a little bit more casually from the backyard with binoculars or small telescopes,” said Leonard.

Comet Leonard is expected to be approximately 21 million miles away at its closest point to Earth.

“That sounds far, and it is, but cosmically speaking, that’s rather close, and again, it provides us an opportunity to see a comet that we otherwise wouldn’t see because it’s too distant,” said Leonard.

Leonard says this comet is expected to be the brightest comet of the year. It may be even brighter than last year’s NEOWISE, but people also need to keep in mind that comets are usually unpredictable.

Currently, the comet is brightening as expected,” said Leonard. “However, they can also disintegrate as they get closer to the Sun. And also, conversely, they can brighten up more than expected and become something of a real spectacle in the sky, and that’s certainly what all of all of us comet hunters hope for.”

Leonard said a good time to check out the comet will be Dec. 5 and into Dec 6, about 4:30 a.m. Overall, the best time to view it will be Dec. 12, just after sunset.

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