(KTLA/NEXSTAR) – A comet that was discovered earlier this year is expected to fly by Earth next week on its journey through the solar system, and it will be the only chance you’ll ever get to observe the celestial object. Comet Leonard, also known as C/2021, will make its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 12, according to NASA.
The comet was discovered earlier this year by astronomer Gregory Leonard, hence its name. EarthSky describes C/2021 A as “likely to be 2021’s best comet and its brightest comet by year’s end.”
Leonard is actually already visible in the sky and can be seen the first two weeks of December in the east before the sun rises. NASA says you can spot it by looking between the Big Dipper’s handle and Arcturus, the latter of which is one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
Then, as Leonard makes its closest encounter with our planet, the comet will approach Earth’s horizon — something that will likely make it appear brighter but, unfortunately, more challenging for stargazers to view, according to the space agency.
After making its closest approach on Dec. 12, the comet will be visible in the evening sky — specifically right after sunset — around Dec. 14 or so, NASA reports. The brightness of the comet will progressively dim as it moves away from Earth and toward the sun, with the object’s closest distance to the heart of our solar system happening around Jan. 3, 2022.
Despite being one of the brightest comets to pass by the planet, Leonard might still be tricky to view — at least without a small telescope or even binoculars. After all, even at its closest point to the Earth, C/2021 will still be more than 21 million miles away.
Distance aside, “Comets are notoriously difficult to predict in terms of brightness and visibility,” NASA explains. “Comet Leonard is predicted to peak at a brightness that will probably require binoculars to spot it. There’s a chance it could be bright enough to see with the unaided eye, but again, with comets, you really never know.”
Stargazers, on the other hand, believe it’s worth making the effort. This will be the only chance you’ll get to see the comet, which may have visited our Solar System before — around 75,000 to 80,000 years ago, Gregory Leonard told Inverse.
“So it’s already had one passage, but of course nobody was really around to record that event,” Leonard said in an interview with the online magazine. “And now it appears this comet is on what we call hyperbolic orbit, so once it passes the Sun, it will be ejected from the Solar System and is going to be flown out for millions of years until likely stumbling into another star system.”