Comet Leonard as spotted by Solar Orbiter.Gif: ESA/NASA/NRL/SoloHI/Guillermo Stenborg/Gizmodo
Sun-facing spacecraft operated by NASA and the European Space Agency provide a unique view of Comet Leonard, an ultrafast chunk of rock, dust and ice currently traveling through the inner solar system.
Comets often appear out of nowhere, or rather, from the Oort cloud. Such is the case with Comet Leonard, who visible to astronomers in early January this year.
Leonard is here for a good time, but not for long. The comet is rapidly approaching perihelion, the shortest distance from the sun along its orbit, causing it to do characteristically comet-like things like glow and grow a gaseous, dusty tail. It’s very weak, but it should be visible when viewed through telescopes or binoculars in the backyard.
Leonard’s closest approach will occur on January 3, after which it will zoom to within 56 million miles (90 million miles) of the sun. Assuming it doesn’t disintegrate, the comet, which is half a mile wide, will then embark on a long 35,000-year journey back to the outer reaches of the solar system.
Comet Leonard’s journey is… recorded by means of astronomers on Earth, but also through telescopes in space, especially the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A (STEREO-A), operated by NASA, and solar orbiter, a joint project of NASA and ESA. Both are studying the sun, but mission controllers have recently used the space-based instruments to spot comets.
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A view of Comet Leonard as captured by NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft. Gif: NASA/NRL/Karl Battams
STEREO-A captured an animated “difference image” of Leonard with its onboard SECCHI/HI-2 telescope. Difference images are “created by subtracting the current frame from the previous frame to emphasize differences between them”, according to to NASA. In this case, the animated image captured subtle changes in the comet’s appearance, including an extension of its tail.
Solar Orbiter, with its Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) on board, captured a video of Leonard using frames collected between December 17 and 19. When SoloHI collected these images, Leonard was “roughly between the sun and the spacecraft, with its gas and dust tails pointing toward the spacecraft,” explains ESA in a rack. “Towards the end of the image series, our view of both tails improves as the viewing angle at which we see the comet increases, and SoloHI gets a side view of the comet,” the space agency said.
Watching the video, you can see the Milky Way in the background, while Venus and Mercury make timely photobombs in the top right corner (Venus is the brighter of the two objects). Solar Orbiter continued to track Leonard until December 22, after which it disappeared from SoloHI’s field of view.
And now we wait to see if Comet Leonard gets brighter or if it doesn’t survive its journey around the sun. It’s not the most exciting rock to ever visit the inner solar system, but we can’t expect every comet to put on a dazzling light show. Here’s hoping we get something more dramatic next year.
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