Here’s when to see it

by Ashley R. Williams, USA Today

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public domain

Grab your binoculars: a comet that has fascinated scientists for five years is nearing its closest distance to Earth this week, and you might be able to catch a glimpse of it.

There’s a chance of spotting comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS, also called K2, on Wednesday or Thursday during its final pass through the solar system, said David Jewitt, professor of Earth, planetary and solar sciences. space at the University of California, Los Angeles. Angels.

But not with the naked eye: Experts say people will need at least a small telescope or binoculars to see it.

At a distance of about 170 million kilometers from Earth, Jewitt warned astronomers that comet K2 would still be quite far away. For reference, the sun is about 93 million kilometers away, he said.

“It’s a hell of a long way,” Jewitt, who has been studying the comet since 2017, told US TODAY.

Here’s what to know about K2 and how you can see it.

When was K2 first discovered?

Comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS caught the attention of experts from the Hawaii-based Panoramic Telescope and Rapid Response System on May 21, 2017. Experts said pre-discovery images of the 2013 comet had been found later.

According to NASA, it had been traveling for millions of years from the frigid depths of the solar system when it was discovered between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus about 2.5 billion kilometers from the sun.

K2 was the most distant active incoming comet ever seen when NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured it. It was observed at 17 times the Earth-Sun distance, Jewitt said. Scientists announced in June 2021 that C/2014 UN271, or Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, passed it as the most observed comet on record.

Scientists Say Comet K2 Came From The Oort Cloud

K2, a “city-sized snowball of ice and dust” as NASA calls it, is said to come from the most distant region of the solar system where many comets are said to have originated: the cloud from Oort. NASA experts said the cloud is a giant spherical shell made of icy space debris the size of mountains or larger.

Astronomers have located K2 in a part of the solar system where sunlight is only 1/225th its brightness as we see it from Earth and temperatures are minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.

The comet “is filled with material that has been frozen since the beginning of the solar system,” Jewitt said. “When we study these comets, we try to look at the material that has been preserved since the beginning of the solar system.”

How far will K2 travel from Earth?

K2 will reach its minimum distance from our planet, about 170 million kilometers, on Wednesday evening, said Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, director of the virtual telescope project.

K2 is the brightest comet in the sky right now, he said.

In July, the comet’s overall speed relative to Earth averages 21 miles per second, Masi said. When K2 reaches its minimum distance around 11 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, he explained that the comet’s speed relative to Earth will be 0 miles per second.

“If we consider the component of this speed in our direction – that is, the speed at which the comet is approaching or leaving us – we obtain that this component is 0 (miles per second) the distance time minimum from us, but it will remain below (6 miles per second) during this month, ”he said.

Why K2 fascinates scientists

What makes K2 intriguing to scientists is that it was coming from the Oort cloud at “an unusually large distance,” Jewitt said. Data from the telescope shows that K2 became active at an “unprecedented” 35 astronomical units, which is the average distance from Earth to the Sun.

K2’s close approach distance of about 170 million miles as of Wednesday evening is equivalent to 1.8 AU, according to data from the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Neptune is 30 times the Earth-Sun distance,” Jewitt said. “It’s really active very far away, and that’s why it’s scientifically interesting, because it allows us to study whatever process is driving the activity at very great distances and at very low temperatures.”

Experts believe the frozen carbon monoxide kept K2 active at extremely large distances from the sun, Jewitt said.

K2 views won’t be ‘spectacular’, but here’s where to look

On Thursday, the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project plans to host a live stream starting at 6:15 p.m. ET for viewers without a telescope.

Jewitt noted that there are “probably hundreds” of comets that have come closer to Earth than K2 and that won’t be a “spectacular” sight for the general public. Masi also noted that the full moon will be in the sky on the K2 flyby date, which could make it “significantly” harder to see, he explained.

But the two experts agreed that you will be able to see K2 with binoculars or a small telescope.

The comet will be visible in the constellation of Ophiuchus from both the northern and southern hemispheres, Masi said.

“Dark skies would provide the best view,” Masi said. He recommends observing K2 over the next few nights when the moon leaves the evening sky. Watching earlier in the evening before moonrise will provide the best view, he added.

Small telescopes will show the comet for several months, he said.


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