Stunning Time-Lapse of Comet 46P Previews Its Gorgeous Green Peak on Sunday

For New Mexico resident Mike Lewinski, the best adventures happen in the sky over his front yard. As dusk falls, he sets up a high-resolution camera on a fixed tripod and points it toward space, creating stunning time-lapse movies of the sky as it changes overnight. In the video he filmed the night of December 8, he caught an gorgeous early glimpse of a long-awaited visitor: Comet 46P/Wirtannen, or the “Christmas comet.” It’s expected to be its brightest in the sky on Sunday, December 16.

“It’s an adventure to wake up and see what I caught over night while sleeping,” Lewinski tells Inverse. The video above, he says, was filmed outside of Tres Piedras, at about 8,000-foot altitude in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. “The first time I saw the comet I was not expecting it and it was a very nice surprise.”

Comet 46P’s orbit around the Sun brings it toward Earth every 5.4 years; the last time it visited was in July 2013, and before that in February 2008. Now that it’s approaching its perihelion — its closest approach to the sun — it’s swinging as close as it can to Earth. On Sunday, it will be about 7,190,000 miles from Earth, near enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Comet 46P Wirtanen
An early glimpse of Comet 46P/Wirtanen, snapped on December 5, 2018.

In his video, featured above, you can catch a glimpse of Comet 46P in the early stages of its visit — if your eyes are fast enough. Named after astronomer Carl Wirtanen, who discovered it in 1948, the comet moves quickly; as Abrams Planetarium Director Shannon Schmoll writes, Wirtanen was a “skilled object hunter and used photos of the night sky to spot the quickly moving object, at least astronomically speaking.”

Fortunately, Lewinski’s time-lapse camera skills allow the less skilled object hunters among us to catch a preview of the green-hued comet as it zooms across our sky. The comet first appears around the 0:21 mark in the video, or at 5:48:20 PM MST.

“It was never clearly visible to my naked eye, even in the darkest night,” he says. “But the green really pops against the dark sky [in] the time lapse.”

comet 46P/wirtanen
Comet 46P appears as a faint green dot and intensifies as the night grows darker.

The comet appears green because some of the gases in its tail can be stimulated by the UV light in sunlight to emit energy that we perceive as a bluish green. Cyanide and diatomic carbon, in particular, can cause this glow when the comet comes close enough to the sun.

Lewinski, who lives near what he calls the “mysterious” San Luis valley, a UFO hot spot, and nearby Dulce, NM, admits that at least “some part of my motivation [to film] is to capture something really exotic and inexplicable. After a lot of years, very little qualifies as extraterrestrial. My skepticism of those stories hardens by the day.” He uploads his videos to his YouTube channel under a Creative Commons license, he says, “to share what I experience and learn.”

Comet 46P/Wirtnanen is hardly inexplicable, but its extra-bright appearance and greenish hue will certainly be considered exotic when it appears in full bloom on Sunday night. Lewinski, no doubt, will be watching.

“My camera is a way to experience the beauty and reality of the world more fully than my eyes can alone,” he says.