You don’t have to be a professional stargazer to appreciate this weekend's astronomical event Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: If you’re looking for a different night out this weekend, just look up! Just make sure that you are at a place far away from the city lights as the year’s brightest comet and meteor shower takes place on Friday. 

The brightest comet of the year, officially known as 46P/Wirtanen, but more popularly known as the “Christmas comet”, will make its closest approach to Earth this weekend and will be at its brightest between December 14 and 18.

The 46P/Wirtanen comet swings by the Sun every five years or so, flying inward from a point near Jupiter. But it’s too distant for us to see. But this year it will zoom past about 11.5 million kilometres away from Earth — or 30 times the distance to the moon. This won’t happen again for another 20 years.

The comet, visibly including its diffuse halo of light, is about the size of the full moon. Residents should be able to see it through binoculars or using a standard DSLR camera if they are away from bright city lights.

Hassan Al Hariri, CEO of Dubai Astronomy Group (DAG), said that the evening of Friday to the early morning of Saturday (December 14-15) is going to be amazing for astronomers and enthusiasts.

“We have Comet 46P/Wirtanen put on a superb show on those days. This periodic visitor currently glows between 4th and 5th magnitude — bright enough to see with the naked eye from a dark site and an easy target through binoculars. Wirtanen made its closest approach to the Sun on December 12 and will come closest to Earth on December 16, when it swoops within 11.5 million kilometres of our planet.”

The comet currently resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleaides star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran. This area remains visible nearly all night, but climbs highest in late evening.

The Wirtanen has a diameter of only about 1.2 kilometres, scientists estimate. Despite its small size, it is classified as a hyperactive comet, which means that it has more ice in its nucleus than one would expect given its size. As it approaches the Sun, the ice melts and turns into a huge cloud that becomes part of the comet’s coma.

The comet’s close approach to Earth will give more opportunities to study and compare the comet’s composition and behaviour to other comets.

Apart from the 46P/Wirtanen comet, another celestial treat is in store for stargazers as the Geminid meteor shower will peak this weekend as well. The seven-day-old moon will give perfect viewing conditions as there will be very little light interference from it.

Stargazers in the UAE will get a chance to see around 120 meteors per hour. Unlike most other meteor showers, the Geminids are not associated with a comet but with an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon. The asteroid takes about 1.4 years to orbit the Sun.

The debris shed by 3200 Phaethon crashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere at some 130,000km/h, to vaporise as colourful Geminid meteors.

“We will have the peak of Geminid Meteor Shower in our region, with the appearance of beautiful First Quarter Moon which will set early, visibility of Saturn and Jupiter in the end of night. We can all say that DAG event of December 14 is full of celestial treats for participants,” Al Hariri said.


Where to watch:

What: Gemenid Meteor Shower

Where: Dubai Astronomy Group hosted event in Al Qudra

When: 10pm on December 14 to 4am December 15

Admission: This is a ticketed event (For more information, visit www.Q-tickets.com.)


What: Gemenid Meteor Shower

Where: Al Sadeem Observatory, Abu Dhabi

When: 10pm on December 13 to 3am on December 14

Admission: FREE (No need to pre-register)