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What is it?

Comet C/2021 A1, otherwise known as comet Leonard, is our brightest comet this year! To put this into context, the brightest comet ever recorded since the 1900s was Comet Ikeya Seki (C/1965 S1) with an apparent magnitude of -10 while comet Leonard is suspected to peak around a magnitude of 4.

Comet Leonard was discovered this past January by Gregory Leonard. While reviewing images taken from the Mt. Lemmon Observatory in Arizona, he spotted a glimpse of the comet and now here we are! C/2021 A1 is classified as a "long-period comet", which to put it simply, just means that it comes from very, very far away in the solar system. It is expected to reach its perihelion, or closest approach to the sun, next month on January third where it will reach its brightest magnitude. Despite its magnitude being a 4, it will not appear as bright in the sky as a star with the same magnitude as comets are diffuse bodies rather than pinpoints like stars.

How to View

If you have been following me for a while, you are probably an astronomy fan and follow observation news fairly closely. That being said, you likely remember Comet NEOWISE that lit up (that's generous phrasing) our skies in July of 2020. Below are some photos that I took at that time:

I think it's important to note here that the comet did not actually look like this in person. In fact, it was barely visible to the human eye. Just as quickly as I could catch a glimpse of it in person, I would lose it. Leonard will be the same, if not more difficult. You will want to be equipped with one of three pieces of equipment:

  • a pair of astronomical or 10x50 binoculars

  • a telescope

  • a DSLR camera capable of long exposure with a telephoto lens and tripod

Through Saturday, Dec. 11, Comet Leonard will be best viewed in the Eastern sky near the planet Mars about an hour or two before sunrise.

After the 11th, we will start hunting for Leonard in the evening sky around sunset in the Southwestern sky, moving past Mercury and Venus then later past Saturn and Jupiter. From this vantage point, the comet will be visible through Christmas.

No, We are Not Doomed... Yet.

Several bad (see also: shit) science and non-science sources have been writing about Asteroid Nero and how its "eiffel-tower sized" body has a chance at colliding with our planet. From these sources, several people have been mistaking Asteroid Nero for Comet Leonard and doing what most susceptible people do: panicking. I am going to remind you of two things: First, rely on true scientific sources and Second, don't fall victim to media fearmongering.

And with that, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes by "the bad astronomer" Phil Plait:

"The difference between the dinosaurs and us is that we have a space program."