New views from the space show Comet Leonard zooms in towards the Sun.


Comet Leonard as spotted by Solar Orbiter.
Gif: ESA / NASA / NRL / SoloHI / Guillermo Stenborg / Gizmodo

A spacecraft looking at the sun operated by NASA and European Room Agency provide a unique view of Comet Leonard, an ultrafast piece of rock, dust and ice currently traveling through the inner solar system.

Comets often appear from the clear sky, more precisely, from the Oort cloud. Such is the case with Comet Leonard, who became visible astronomers in early January this year.

Leonard is having a good time here, but not for long. The comet quickly approaches the perihelion, the closest distance from the Sun along its orbital orbit, causing it to do characteristic cometary things, such as glow and grow a gaseous, dusty tail. He is very weak, but he should be visible when viewed through backyard telescopes or binoculars.

Leonard’s closest approach will occur on January 3, when it will be zoomed to 56 million miles (90 million miles) from the Sun. A comet half a mile wide, assuming it doesn’t decay, will then begin a long 35,000-year journey back to the outer regions of the solar system.

Leonardo’s journey is a being chronicle per astronomers on Earth, but also by telescopes in space, to be exact 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 space instruments to spot comets.

A view of Comet Leonard taken by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft.
Gif: NASA / NRL / Karl Battams

STEREO-A, with its built-in SECCHI / HI-2 telescope, recorded an animated Leonardo’s “different image”. Images of the difference are “created by subtracting the current frame from the previous frame to highlight the differences between them”, according to at NASA. In this case, the animated image recorded subtle changes in the comet’s appearance, including lengthening its tail.

Solar Orbiter, with its built-in Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI), shot Leonard’s video using footage collected between December 17 and 19. When SoloHI collected these images, Leonard was “roughly between the Sun and the spacecraft, with tails of gas and dust pointing toward the spacecraft,” ESA explained in statement. “Towards the end of the image sequence, 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 perform some timely photobombing in the upper right corner (Venus is brighter than the two objects). The Solar Orbiter continued to track Leonard until December 22, after which he disappeared from SoloHI’s field of vision.

And now we’re waiting to see if Leonard’s comet gets brighter or fails to survive its journey around the Sun. It’s not the most exciting rock to ever visit the interior The solar system, but we can’t expect each comet to put on a dazzling light show. We hope to get something more dramatic next year.

More: The most exciting things happening in space in 2022.


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