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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

'Christmas comet' to speed through UAE skies this weekend

46P/Wirtanen will pass closer to Earth than it has been in more than 400 years

A comet travelling through space. Darlow Smithson Productions
A comet travelling through space. Darlow Smithson Productions

Santa’s sleigh is not the only thing to search for in the skies over the UAE this month.

46P/Wirtanen, which has been called the "Christmas comet" by astronomers, will this weekend pass closer to Earth than it has been in more than 400 years.

Although still 11.5 million kilometres away, the comet is officially the tenth closest on record and the brightest to appear in the skies this year.

Astronomers say it should be visible to the naked eye from December 14 to 18 – although you may need to keep a pair of binoculars or a digital camera to hand to see it if you are in the city. Although theoretically bright enough, the light reflected from the comet is spread over a large atmosphere, or coma.

Wirtanen has a diameter of about 1.2 kilometres and swings by Earth every five years or so. It is classed as a hyperactive comet, meaning that it has more ice in its nucleus than that would be expected for its size. As it approaches the Sun, the ice melts, turning into a cloud that becomes part of the comet's coma.

“Wirtanen made its closest approach to the Sun December 12 and will come closest to Earth on the 16th, when it swoops within 11.5 million kilometres of our planet,” said Hasan Al Hariri, head of the Dubai Astronomy Group.

“The comet currently resides among the background stars of Taurus the Bull, between the magnificent Pleaides star cluster (M45) and the 1st-magnitude star Aldebaran. This area remains visible nearly all night, but climbs highest in late evening.”

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The appearance of the comet will coincide with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which astronomers say will be one of the best meteor showers of the year they will not only be bright, but also “fast and furious”.

This year there is expected to be more than one meteor per minute, or about 100 per hour which will be visible across the sky if it is not affected by light pollution from the city.

Emirati astronomer Thabet Al Qaissieh, who runs Al Sadeem Observatory in Al Wathba, said the annual event has been called the "king of meteor showers".

"It runs for more or less a month, but peaks around December 13 or 14," he said.

"It would be harder to see it in the city, much harder, which is why we are holding an open-house event at the observatory. It should be exciting. Last year we saw two really bright meteors. They were amazingly bright."

Mr Al Qaissieh's event, at his observatory in Al Wathba, is free of charge and starts from 10pm on Thursday. The temperature reached a relatively chilly 17C a couple of nights ago, so people may want to bring a jacket, he said.

Dubai Astronomy Group is also holding a special event this Friday, from 10pm to 4pm at Al Qudra in Dubai. Activities will include guided observations using telescopes and the naked eye, a star decoding session and a Q&A session. Tickets cost Dh120 for adults, Dh70 for children and Dh50 for Dubai Astronomy Group members. Visit the group's Facebook page for more details.

Updated: December 10, 2018 06:34 PM

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