Dec. 27, 2021: Something unusual is happening to the tail of Comet Leonard. It’s being disconnected. To see the break, scroll down this picture taken by Gerald Rhemann on Christmas Day:
Blame space weather. CMEs hitting comets can cause magnetic reconnection in comet tails, sometimes ripping them off entirely. NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft watched this happen to Comet Encke in April 2007: movie. Comet Leonard has not experienced a known CME impact, but solar wind streams can do the same thing. At least two high-speed streams have hit the comet in recent weeks–enough to explain the turmoil.
This photo taken by Jan Hattenbach on Dec. 26th shows Comet Leonard’s tail whipsawing across the sky over La Palma in the Canary islands:
“The tail is at least 36 degrees long!” marvels Hattenbach. “Of those, six degrees could be seen in 10×50 binoculars, including the bright ‘knot’ associated with the disconnection event. Under the dark skies of La Palma, the comet was easily seen as a 3.9mag elongated cloud with the naked eye.”
Not every knot in Leonard’s tail is a disconnection event. Comet Leonard has flared in brightness 3 times since Dec. 15th–a sign of possible fragmentation in the comet’s core. Much of the tail is doubtless an imprint of Comet Leonard’s rapid-fire instabilities.
Whatever is happening, get ready for more. Comet Leonard is approaching the sun for a 0.61 AU close approach on Jan. 3rd. Increasing heat and proximity to solar storms could spark new outbursts and ruptures. Astronomers in the southern hemisphere will have the best view as the comet glides through the constellation Microscopium. Here’s where to find it.