Comet 46P/Wirtanen is known as a hyperactive comet. Hyperactive comets are a small family of comets whose activity levels are higher than expected. In addition to being hyperactive 46P/Wirtanen will make the 10th closest ever cometary approach to Earth of modern times (0.08au) this month.
JCMT astronomers will take this opportunity to map the distribution of chemicals like hydrogen cyanide and methanol in this comet’s coma, to try and determine if these chemicals emerged directly from the comet nucleus or were formed in the coma from other chemicals. This mapping will be performed by the JCMT spectral line instrument; HARP. In addition to observing these chemicals the astronomers are hoping the comet will be bright enough to make other measurements that that will shed light on the original location and conditions of the comet’s formation within the very early stages of what we now know to be our Solar System.
For more information on comet 46P/Wirtanen visit: http://wirtanen.astro.umd.edu/46P/