Image of comet Leonard. Credit: Michael Jäger

Solar Orbiter Snaps Footage of Christmas Comet

The Solar Orbiter, which explores the Sun, captured the motion of comet Leonard against the background of stars and planets. The comet is expected to pass the perihelion in early January, after which it will permanently leave the Solar System.

Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard)

Long-period comet C / 2021 A1 (Leonard) was discovered in early January this year by astronomer Greg Leonard who was using the Catalina Sky Survey Telescope. Scientists believe that the comet has been around for at least 35,000 years during which time it has been traveling towards the Sun.

Comet Leonard is an ultrafast comet and moves with a speed of more than 71,000 kilometers per second. On December 12, it approached the Earth, and on January 3, 2022, it will pass the perihelion point of its current orbit, being 90 million kilometers from the Sun, which is slightly more than half the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

As comets travel towards the Sun, they shed material that forms the so-called coma. The streams of gas and dust extend behind the object forming the tails we observe. In the case of comet Leonard, if the core does not disintegrate, then in the future the comet will be thrown out of the solar system into interstellar space.

You can observe the comet with a telescope

Most comets form in the outer regions of the Solar System and don’t become visible to us until they approach the Sun. Comet Leonard is currently available for observation with telescopes and binoculars, its brightness is estimated at +4.7 magnitude, and it is located in the constellation Microscopium. In December, the comet experienced several flares, which are associated with an increase in the activity of the nucleus.

Solar Orbiter’s video of comet Leonard

On December 17-19, 2021, Leonard’s comet came into the field of view of the SoloHI instrument installed onboard the Solar Orbiter probe, which is engaged in solar research.

Mercury, Venus (brighter than Mercury and moving from left to right) and part of the Milky Way are visible in the upper right of the frame, and stars and dust clouds in the constellation Southern Corona in the lower-left corner of the frame.

The change in the length of the comet’s tail occurs due to a change in the viewing angle. Toward the end of the recording, when the comet was close enough and almost “in profile”, it can be discerned that the tail consists of two parts, gas and dust. Gas, formed by fast light ions, is directed exactly from the Sun, and dust, consisting of heavier particles, slightly bends in the direction of the orbit.

In addition to the Solar Orbiter, the comet was also filmed by another apparatus engaged in studying the Sun – the HI-2 telescope installed onboard STEREO-A, which conducted observations in early November this year.


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Sources:

Atkinson, N. (2021, December 23). This video of Comet Leonard (with Venus and Mercury) will blow your mind. Universe Today.
Hatfield, M. (2021, December 21). Views of Comet Leonard from two sun-watching spacecraft. NASA.
Irizarry, E. (2021, December 24). Comet Leonard in the evening sky. EarthSky.
King, B. (2021, December 27). Comet leonard: A gift at christmastime. Sky & Telescope.
Mathewson, S. (2021, December 22). Comet Leonard’s discoverer explains how the unusual object was found. Space.com.
Rao, R. (2021, December 21). ‘outbursts’ from comet Leonard spotted by NASA Satellite (video). Space.com.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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