How to 'star-hop' your way to view Comet Leonard this week

An undated photo of Comet Leonard in the night sky accompanied by two galaxies.

An undated photo of Comet Leonard in the night sky accompanied by two galaxies. (janush, Shutterstock)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A comet that some have called "out of the ordinary" will be visible this week in the morning sky.

With help from local astronomers, you may be able to catch a glimpse.

Comet Leonard, what may be 2021's brightest comet, can be seen through binoculars or telescope about 90 minutes before sunrise – 5:30 a.m. local time until Sunday, skyandtelescope.org wrote. After that, the comet will appear low in the evening sky right after sunset, said Marlene Egger, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society Bogdand Refractor training coordinator.

That can be quite a task.

"The big challenge (with Leonard) is knowing where to look," said Patrick Wiggins, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/solar system ambassador to Utah.

Leonard is too dim to see with the naked eye, and only appears as a small, fuzzy dot in optical equipment, Wiggins said. He also cautioned that the comet will not resemble the classic coma and tail structure of brighter comets, or even pictures of Leonard taken by astrophotographers.

Still, an early-morning hunt for this novel visitor can be rewarding. To successfully stalk this quarry, astronomers say you can use a practice referred to as "star-hopping."

Viewing the comet

Egger has been following Leonard closely, posting daily on Facebook diagrams of Leonard's movement through the sky. She shared one of her diagrams with ksl.com, which shows how to specifically "star hop" Comet Leonard Wednesday morning.

Star hopping diagram created by SLAS Astronomer Marlene Egger. By following paths from known, bright stars, one can spot 2021's brightest comet, Comet Leonard.
Star hopping diagram created by SLAS Astronomer Marlene Egger. By following paths from known, bright stars, one can spot 2021's brightest comet, Comet Leonard. (Photo: Marlene Egger, Salt Lake Astronomical Society)

According to Egger, on that morning, the comet will be hiding out in a region of the sky near the constellations Bootes and Corona Borealis. If these names bring back anxieties from your beginning astronomy elective, Egger offers more direction.

"Face east. From the handle of the Big Dipper, arc to Arcturus, the brightest star in the eastern sky," she said.

This mnemonic arc to Arcturus is a staple in observational astronomy. If you direct your gaze in a gentle arc from the end of the Big Dipper handle until your eyes rest on the first, the bright star in the sky you will have found is Arcturus.

After you have spotted this star, try to find a pair of dimmer stars about 10 degrees below Arcturus. The blue circles on Egger's diagram represent a circle of sky, 5-degrees in diameter. This is the amount of sky visible in 10x50 binoculars, the most basic optical equipment that can reveal the comet, Egger said.

Interpreting the diagram further, another 5 degrees down and to the left, and you will be in the comet's vicinity. Egger offered another diagram, which involves star hopping to the base of a triangle formed by Arcturus, a second bright star in Boötes called Izar, and the brightest star in the Corona Borealis, Alphecca. Both methods should help triangulate the comet's position.

"Right now, it looks like a blur. A faintly white, fuzzy patch," Egger said of Leonard's visage.

Wiggins's description of the comet is similar. He adds that he isn't optimistic about being able to spot the comet's tail either, saying the whole structure looks like a "slightly elongated dot."

While space bloggers claim the comet, which was discovered by the eponymous astronomer Greg Leonard in Tucson, Arizona, back in January, could be visible to the naked eye at some point this week, both Wiggins and Egger are not as optimistic.

"Comets are very unpredictable, so no one really knows how this one is going to look," Wiggins said.

Egger said that binoculars are the best option for viewing the comet since they are not as unwieldy as a telescope. She added that viewing a similar comet a few years ago through binoculars was what sparked her love for astronomy.

Though unassuming, Comet Leonard did not come all this way for nothing.

Space.com writes that Leonard is at the end of a 35,000-year, 325 billion-mile-long journey through the solar system. Like so many other astronomical phenomena, Comet Leonard will only appear this one time. But as in Egger's experience, one time might be all it takes.

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