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South Coast Astronomers Study Comet That Makes Close Approach To Earth

Photo by T. Lister / C. Snodgrass / Las Cumbres Observatory / Faulkes Telescope Project
Comet 46P/Wirtanen as viewed with the Faulkes Telescope North, Las Cumbres Observatory at Maui, Hawaii, on December 9, 2018.

A comet is making a close approach to Earth on Sunday morning, and astronomers on the South Coast are keeping a close eye on it.

A comet is a collection of gas, dust and ice leftover from the formation of the solar system. And this particular comet called 46P/Wirtanen happens to be close to the sun and Earth – about seven million miles away.

Dr. Tim Lister with Goleta-based Las Cumbres Observatory is studying it using its global network of telescopes. He says it’s the 10th closest comet approach in the last 70 years.

"We will not have another comet that comes this close or this bright until 2061 of the ones that we know about.  So, it really gives us a great opportunity to study this comet in great detail in a way that we could normally only do with spacecraft,"  Lister says.

The observatory built a new instrument that includes a camera and specialized filters that were installed on its two meter telescope on Maui to tune to specific gasses emitted by the comet.

LCO is part of an international effort to study this comet.