Brighter than Rudolph's nose — 'Christmas comet' zooms near Earth this month

On Saturday, stargazers gathered at Ambrose University in southwest Calgary to catch a glimpse of comet 46P/Wirtanen (named after Carl Wirtanen who discovered it in 1948).

It should be visible to the naked eye through late December

Comet 46P will be making its closest pass to earth in four centuries on Dec. 16, 2018, and will be bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. This image of the comet was taken on Dec. 2 at an observatory in New Mexico. (NASA)

Santa's sleigh might be outshone in the December sky, as a comet makes its closest approach to Earth in centuries.

On Saturday night, close to 100 stargazers gathered at Ambrose University, a Christian post-secondary institution in southwest Calgary, to catch a glimpse of comet 46P/Wirtanen (named after Carl Wirtanen who discovered it in 1948).

Some have dubbed it the "Christmas comet" as it's the brightest comet to pass Earth as the year wraps up.

"It's a messenger that's rising with the east in the night sky," said Stephen Jeans, an astronomy professor at Ambrose University. "It's a wonderful way to start the season, I think."

Jesus Salazar, a pastor and amateur astro-photographer, adjusts his telescope to view comet 46/P Wirtanen. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The comet's orbit between the Sun and Jupiter takes a relatively short 5.4 years, and it's small — just 1.2 kilometres across.

It makes its closest approach Sunday — just 11.4 million kilometres away — and won't come this close again until 2038. 

"It's pretty exciting," said Jesus Salazar, an amateur astronomer. "You can see it relatively regularly, but not this bright. There's often comets in the sky but only visible through bigger telescopes … to be able to see it with the naked eye is not that common."

Salazar is not just an astro-photographer, but also a pastor in Calgary.

"I see beauty when I look up at the sky," he said. "To me that just reflects God's greatness."

Astronomy enthusiasts gather at Ambrose University to learn about comets Saturday before heading outside to stargaze. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The comet's approach is just four days after it reaches perihelion, the closest approach to the sun in its orbit, which creates its long tail as the ice surrounding it evaporates from the sun's heat.

"It's really cool," said Shawna LeBlanc. "It's just amazing that it's even possible to see with a naked eye."

If you want to see the comet this month, glance up around 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and look for a green glow along the Taurus constellation near the Pleiades star cluster.

With files from Terri Trembath

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