Look up! It's your last chance to see the Christmas comet

Comet Leonard
Comet Leonard Photo credit Getty Images
By , NewsRadio 1080 KRLD

A cosmic event is about to happen this Christmas season that might have you thinking you just saw Santa's sleigh and his reindeer streaking across the sky.

A "Christmas comet" is about to light up the night sky, but you only have a couple of chances to see it before it burns out forever.

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The comet is formally known as Comet Leonard, named after Gregory Leonard, an astronomer at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who discovered it in January, 2021.

The comet is made of space dust, rock, and ice, and is about a half-mile wide, according to NASA. It made its closest approach to Earth on December 12, and is now headed back into deep space. But as it does, it's expected to burn with an extra-bright intensity that will be visible to most parts of the United States.

The comet can be seen low in the evening sky, just after sunset. As it travels closer to the sun, the comet will appear brighter and easier to spot. Because the comet is so close to the horizon, it may be challenging to observe with the naked eye so astronomers suggest using binoculars or telescopes to get the best view.

The comet is set to make its closest pass to the sun on January 3, so you only have a few days left to see it.

"It will skim across the west-southwestern horizon between now up until around Christmastime," Leonard said in a statement. "Find yourself a dark sky with a good view of the horizon, bring binoculars, and I think you may be rewarded."

Over the past couple of days, the comet has been undergoing "outbursts," according to NASA, in which it releases volatile material. Those bursts appear as rapid changes in brightness, which can light up the sky. NASA said the comet also appears to be growing a long, flowing gas tail, which can appear as a streaking light across the sky.

The comet was recently caught on video by a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft as it flew past the Milky Way Galaxy "with its tail streaking out behind."

"When [the telescope] recorded these images," the ESA explained, "the comet was approximately between the Sun and the spacecraft, with its gas and dust tails pointing towards the spacecraft. Toward the end of the image sequence, our view of both of the tails improves as the viewing angle at which we see the comet increases."

In the event the comet doesn't disintegrate completely when it makes its closest pass to the sun on January 3, it will be ejected back out to interstellar space, never to return.

"This is the last time we are going to see the comet," Leonard said in the statement. "It's speeding along at escape velocity, 44 miles per second. After its slingshot around the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, and it may stumble into another star system millions of years from now."

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images