“Comet 21P” captured in 1998.
It could be the closest thing to a real-life dragon in the night sky, and you can catch its flight with a pair of binoculars.
The comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner is about to make a particularly close pass by our planet. The wet space rock is the source of the annual Draconid meteor shower that sends “shooting stars” radiating from the direction of the constellation Draco the Dragon every October.
“Comet 21P” orbits the sun every 6.6 years, but this year it’ll come closer to us than it has in the past 72 years, passing within 58.6 million kilometers (36.4 million miles). That’s about the same as the closest distance between Earth and Mars — where both planets have been lately, by coincidence.
The comet can be seen right now with dark enough skies using a pair of binoculars, but it’ll continue to grow a little brighter until its closest approach on Sept. 10 and 11.
Between now and mid-September the comet can be spotted by pointing your lenses in the direction of the constellation Auriga, the charioteer. Astronomer and NASA ambassador Eddie Irizarry also offers more detailed viewing instructions and illustrations here.
While the hard, rocky nucleus of the comet is just a little over a mile wide (2 kilometers), the heat of the sun has caused it to develop a cometary atmosphere (the fuzzy tail) about twice as wide as the planet Jupiter, according to Irizarry.
Each time this comet passes by the inner solar system it leaves behind little pieces of itself. These pebbles and other debris form the dusty cloud that our planet passes through each October, giving us the Draconid meteor shower.
So if you can, head outside under clear dark skies with a small telescope or binoculars to try to spy 21P as it passes by. It’ll be a good warm-up for the arrival of the Draconids, and a historic visit from another comet in December. (More on that soon.)
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