Joe Witherspoon is making his star and solar telescopes available in Madison County this month so people can get a good look at Comet 46P Wirtanen.
The comet was named for astronomer Carl Wirtanen, who discovered it and two other comets in 1948. It is among a family of Jupiter comets that have short orbital cycles of 20 years or less, and they’re in Jupiter’s orbit when farthest away from the sun.
Witherspoon, who runs the Cottontail Observatory from his home and spread in Twin Bridges, says 46P will reach perihelion, its closest point to the sun, on Dec. 12 and is expected to reach a brightness of magnitude 3. That’s well within naked-eye visibility. The star Pherkad in the Little Dipper has a brightness of magnitude 3.
46P will be in the constellation Taurus (the bull) on Dec. 12, Witherspoon said, and pass between the Hyades and Pleiades (seven sisters) star clusters just before its closest approach to Earth, approximately 7 million miles, on Dec. 18. It should appear reasonably large due to its closeness to Earth.
Viewing the comet will be a bit of a challenge due to the moon, and for three days before early Tuesday morning, cloud cover blocked it out, Witherspoon said.
Cottontail Observatory, located at 280 West Georgia Rd. in Twin Bridges, will set up telescopes and have a warm classroom for the event. There is no admission price but donations are welcome.
The telescope will be available to the public on:
- Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m., at Cottontail Observatory, with a student program also open to the public
- Dec. 15, 6:30 p.m., at the Madison County Fairgrounds
- Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m., at Cottontail Observatory
- Dec. 29, 7:30 p.m., at Cottontail Observatory
If questions, call 406-842-7722.