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‘Christmas’ Comet Flashes Across Sky

CARROLL — The Wirtanen comet is making a cosmic splash in the world of astronomy, and Martz-Kohl Observatory President Gary Nelson wants the public to bundle up and get outside to see the astral body make its rounds in the December and January night skies.

While the observatory itself won’t be open for the public to see the comet due to continuing renovations, Wirtanen can be seen by the naked eye on a clear night. The comet is periodically appearing and visits us every 5.4 years to be exact, Nelson said. It was named after American astronomer Carl Wirtanen, who discovered the comet’s existence in 1948.

Wirtanen is far older than Christmas traditions with it clocking in at approximately 4 billion years old. Previously, it has only been visible through high-powered telescopes. Now, observatory volunteers recommend trying to check it out with the naked eye or with binoculars.

Dubbed the “Christmas Comet” by enthusiasts, Wirtanen hasn’t been this close to Earth in centuries and won’t be this visible again for centuries more. It exudes a green hue due to its cyanogen gas content, which is considered unusual compared to most comets.

“This will be the 10th closest approach of any modern time comet,” Nelson said. “Wirtanen will be in the southwest of the Orion (constellation) headed north toward the Pleiades (star cluster) in early evening through December and into January. The comet is looking as large as the moon in the sky.”

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