Meteor shower and comet to light up seasonal skies

Stargazers will be treated to celestial Christmas season light displays when a meteor shower and comet pass over the Earth this week.

Comet Wirtanen will pass close enough to the Earth to be visible to the naked eye in the night sky in rural and suburban areas.

Astronomers are dubbing it the Christmas Comet and it is predicted it will be the brightest comet of 2018.

SCIENCE Geminids
SCIENCE Geminids

It will come just days after about 50 shooting stars an hour will be visible in the southern skies as part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Comet Wirtanen will be at its brightest and most visible in the southern sky mid-December as it makes its regular orbit around the planet.

But while in some dark rural areas it will be visible to the naked eye, astronomers are recommending people use binoculars or telescopes to get the best view of it.

Its closest passage by the Earth will be on Sunday December 16, when it will be 7.2 million miles from the planet.

The comet's bright display will be preceded by the shooting stars of the Geminid meteor shower, which will create a Christmas light show for people with their eyes to the heavens.

The annual meteor shower will appear in the skies on Thursday night and Friday morning, with visibility expected to be good despite cloud forecast in eastern areas of England and Scotland.

The skies should clear periodically meaning it should still be visible at some points of the night in eastern areas, the Met Office said.

At its peak you should be able to see more than 50 shooting stars per hour originating from the asteroid, it added.

David Moore, editor of Astronomy Ireland magazine, said Comet Wirtanen would be visible to the naked eye in dark rural areas, but also in city suburbs when it was at its brightest.

He added: "We have not had a comet this well placed and bright for many years.

"We have dubbed Comet Wirtanen 'the Christmas Comet of 2018' for this reason."