The brightest comet to whiz past Earth in 2021 has likely disintegrated.
Comet Leonard is now nothing but a ghostly streak, having lost its nucleus, or main body, and its coma, or temporary atmosphere, according to EarthSky magazine. The comet, first noticed by planetary science researcher Gregory Leonard of the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, survived barely a year after its discovery.
Though the comet is gone, it will be fondly remembered, both by scientists who hope to learn something from its breakup and by its discoverer.
"[F]or me this comet and its apparition have been an unimagined dream come true," Leonard wrote in an email to EarthSky.
The life of a comet
Leonard discovered the comet that bears his name on Jan. 3, 2021. The discovery was inadvertent, Leonard told Live Science's sister site Space.com; in December 2020, he was doing a routine survey for near-Earth asteroids when he spotted something too fuzzy to be an asteroid. What he was seeing was the coma, the thin asteroid that forms around the icy comet nucleus as it nears the sun and heats up.
The comet likely came from the Oort cloud, a spherical cluster of icy and rocky bodies thought to hover outside the solar system at 2,000 times the distance between the sun and Earth.
Comet Leonard is just one of 13 comets that Leonard had discovered as of December 2021, but it was special because its orbit brought it close enough to Earth for it to be spotted with a backyard telescope or binoculars. The comet made its closest pass by Earth on Dec. 12, 2021. And it behaved oddly: As it approached the sun, it should have brightened as it warmed, with gas and dust streaming from its surface. Instead, it became dimmer in November 2021, likely because it began boiling off water instead of carbon dioxide, according to EarthSky.
But just as some astronomers were questioning whether the comet would be a dud, it came to life again, brightening and developing a dramatic twisted tail as it interacted with the wind of charged particles streaming from the sun.
The end of Comet Leonard
After this last hurrah, though, Comet Leonard — also known as Comet C/2021 A1 — approached perihelion, or its closest point in its orbit to the sun, on Jan. 3, 2022, coincidentally a year to the day after it was first discovered. As it got close, the comet began to fluctuate in brightness. At this point, Comet Leonard was no longer visible from the Northern Hemisphere but could be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.
On Feb. 23, Czech Academy of Sciences telescope operator Martin Mašek noticed that the comet's nucleus was looking decidedly ghostly, according to EarthSky. Unlike in late 2021, Comet Leonard was really breaking up. Its approximately 1-mile-wide (1.6 kilometers) nucleus had either disintegrated or evaporated. Telescope imagery soon showed nothing but a vague smear across the night sky.
Scientists may still learn from the quirky way Comet Leonard moved through space on its final voyage, Leonard told EarthSky. It will also be remembered for its final dramatic show.
"It will be known for the appearance of the tails, some of the best ever observed," he said.
Originally published on Live Science.