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Comet Leonard may have spawned meteor shower on Venus

Astrophotographer Chris Schur captured this stunning photo of Comet Leonard on Dec. 4, 2021 from Payson, Arizona using a 10-inch Newtonian telescope and 60-minute camera exposure.

Astrophotographer Chris Schur captures this stunning photo of Comet Leonard on Dec. 4, 2021 from Payson, Arizona using a 10-inch Newtonian telescope and 60-minute camera exposure.   (Image credit: Courtesy of Chris Schur)

Comet Leonard may be sparking meteor showers at Venus this weekend during a relatively close approach of the comet to the planet.

Officially known as comet C/2021 A1, also known as Comet Leonard was discovered in January by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard of the Mount Lemmon Infrared Observatory in Arizona. Its close pass of Venus this weekend gives skywatchers a marker in the evening sky to help spot the comet, which is at binocular visibility from Earth and may be just barely bright enough to be visible to the naked eye under clear, dark skies.

At Venus, though, the story is different. The orbit of the planet and the comet will come within 31,000 miles (50,000 km) of each other, which is equivalent to the geosynchronous satellite orbital path above Earth.

Comet Leonard is a once-in-a-lifetime comet for stargazers as its orbit takes about 80,000 years to round the sun. If you're looking for a telescope of binoculars to see planets in the sky, check out our guide for the best binoculars deals and the best telescope deals available now. Our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography can also help you pick the best imaging gear to spot the next comet.

Want to see Comet Leonard? Here are telescope and binoculars recommendations

This NASA sky map shows the location of Comet Leonard in the night sky from Dec. 14 to Dec. 25 in 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Given the thick cloud cover at Venus, watching a meteor shower at the planet would require you to be 35 to 40 miles (55 to 60 kilometers) above the surface, where the temperature and pressure are somewhat similar to Earth, Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who focuses on Venus, recently told Space.com.

"It is the only other place in the solar system where room temperature and pressure conditions are present and, potentially, an astronaut could stand on the railing of a gondola with a breathing apparatus on but otherwise in shirtsleeves," he said. 

Qicheng Zhang is a planetary science graduate student at Caltech and lead author of a new paper (opens in new tab) exploring the scenario, posted July 26 to the preprint server arXiv.org and submitted to the Astronomical Journal. 

Artist's illustration of Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft at Venus. (Image credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita)

The paper suggested that the best scenario for a meteor shower occurs as Venus goes through the comet's trail, but it would require very high activity from the comet. That's a fairly rare scenario, but not impossible.

"If we did have a positive detection of meteors on Venus from this event, it would tell us that this comet was quite active at high distances from the sun," Zhang previously told Space.com.

Venus has only one orbiter in place: Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft. But Earth, Venus and the sun may be oriented in a way to allow Earth observers to see faint flashes from Comet Leonard's debris, Zhang said. (By contrast, a close flyby of Comet Siding Spring near Mars in 2014 was spotted by multiple spacecraft.)

Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing comet or night sky picture and would like to share it with Space.com readers, send your photos, comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.