Nerd Culture

Here’s How and When to See Comet Leonard Over Arizona

A glimpse at Comet Leonard from earlier this month.
A glimpse at Comet Leonard from earlier this month. Eddie Yip/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr
The brightest comet of the year is currently soaring through the nighttime sky, and you’ve only got a limited amount of time to see it this month.

Comet Leonard – a streaking celestial ball of ice, rock, and stellar gases – is making its way through our neck of the solar system and is causing skywatchers to break out their binoculars and telescopes for a view.

Discovered by an Arizona astronomer earlier this year, the retrograde comet has gotten brighter in recent days and will be visible every early morning for the next several days.

Claude Haynes of the East Valley Astronomy Society says it might even get bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

“It's visible pretty well with a pair of binoculars, so you don't necessarily have to have a telescope,” he says.

It’s been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” owing to the fact Comet Leonard won’t return to our solar system after its flyby of Earth. If you’d like to see it, here are some tips and other information about when and where to look.

Why Is It Called Comet Leonard?

Officially, it known as Comet C/2021 A1, but its more common moniker comes from the fact it was discovered by Greg Leonard, the senior research specialist with the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey.

Just How Far Away Is It?

Comet Leonard is currently about 34.9 million kilometers away from Earth (or .23 astronomical units).

So When and Where Will Comet Leonard Be Visible?

Skywatchers in the northern hemisphere (including Arizona) will be able to see the comet in the eastern sky every morning until December 12. (Haynes recommends looking about 10 degrees above the horizon.) Astronomers believe that the comet should get brighter and move closer to the horizon as each day passes.

What Will Viewing Conditions Be Like?

Unfortunately, the recent influx of rainy weather and overcast skies might make things somewhat difficult when trying to do some skywatching. According to the current forecast, though, thing will clear up a bit on both Saturday, December 11, and Sunday, December 12. YMMV depending on where in Arizona that you're located.

What Time Should You Look?

Astronomers say that Comet Leonard will be visible an hour prior to dawn each morning.

Where’s the Best Location to Try Spotting the Comet?

Anywhere with a wide-open view of the horizon and little in the way of mountains, trees, or other landmarks blocking things. As with any skywatching, it always helps to be somewhere with as little light pollution as possible, like on the edge of town or out in the boonies.

Will You Need a Telescope or Binoculars?

It would help. As we said, NEOWISE has been described as a “naked-eye comet,” but having a decent pair of binoculars (50mm or better) or a telescope at least four inches in length will assist you in getting as close a look as possible.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.