by Ashley R. Williams, USA TODAY
Get your binoculars: A comet that has fascinated scientists for five years is getting closer to Earth this week — and you might just get a peek.
There is a chance that comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS, also known as K2, will be spotted on Wednesday or Thursday as it finally passes through the solar system, said David Jewett, professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Angelis.
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 miles from Earth, Jewett warned stargazers that comet K2 would still be very far away. For reference, the Sun is about 93 million miles away.
“That’s a long way to go,” Jewett, who has studied the comet since 2017, told US TODAY.
Here’s what you need to know about K2 and how you can watch it.
When was K2 first discovered?
Comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS caught the attention of experts at the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii on May 21, 2017. The experts said pre-discovery images of the comet from 2013 were later found.
It was traveling for millions of years from the frigid depths of the solar system, according to NASA, when it was discovered between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus 1.5 billion miles from the sun.
K2 was the most distant active inner comet ever seen when captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Jewett said it was observed at a distance of 17 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Scientists announced in June 2021 that Comet C/2014 UN271, or Bernardinelli-Bernstein Comet, has overtaken it as the farthest comet ever observed.
Scientists say K2 came from the Oort Cloud
K2, a “city-sized snowball of ice and dust,” as NASA calls it, is thought to have come from the most distant region in the Solar System where many comets are believed to have originated: the Oort cloud. NASA experts said the cloud is a giant spherical crust made of ice chunks of space debris the size of mountains or larger.
Astronomers have located K2 in a part of the solar system where the brightness of sunlight is only 1/225 as seen from Earth and where temperatures are below 440 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.
Jewett said the comet is “full of material that has been frozen since the beginning of the time of the solar system.” “When we study these comets, we try to look at material that has been preserved since the beginning of the solar system.”
How close is K2’s travel to Earth?
K2 will reach its lowest distance from our planet, about 170 million miles away, on Wednesday night, Italy-based astrophysicist Gianluca Massi, project manager for the virtual telescope, said.
He said K2 is the brightest comet in the sky right now.
Massey said the comet’s total velocity relative to Earth in July averaged 21 miles per second. When K2 reaches its minimum distance around 11 p.m. ET Wednesday, it has been shown that the comet’s velocity relative to Earth will be 0 miles per second.
“If we consider the component of this velocity in our direction – that is, how fast the comet is approaching or leaving us – we get that this component is 0 (miles per second) time minimum distance from us, but it will remain less than (6 miles per second) during this month “.
Why K2 fascinates scientists
What makes K2 so iconic for scientists, Jewett said, is that it came from the Oort cloud at an “extraordinarily large distance”. Telescope data shows that K2 is 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 Wednesday night is the equivalent of 1.8 astronomical units, according to data from the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Neptune is 30 times the distance between the Earth and the sun,” Jewett said. “It’s really active far away, and that’s why it’s scientifically interesting, because that allows us to study which process is driving the activity at very large distances and at very low temperatures.”
Experts believe that frozen carbon monoxide kept K2 active at very large distances from the sun, Jewett said.
K2’s views won’t be “amazing” but here’s where to look
On Thursday, Italy-based Project Virtual Telescope plans to host a live broadcast beginning at 6:15 p.m. ET for viewers without a telescope.
Jewett noted that there are “probably hundreds” of comets that have come closer to Earth than K2 and that it would not be a “spectacular” sight for the general public. Massey also noted that a full moon will be in the sky on the date of K2’s flyby, which could make it “largely” difficult to see, he explained.
But both experts agree that you will be able to see K2 with binoculars or a small telescope.
Massey said the comet will be visible in the constellation Ophiuchus from both the northern and southern hemispheres.
“A dark sky would provide the best view,” Massey said. He recommends keeping an eye on K2 over the next few nights as the moon leaves the evening sky. He added that searching in the early evening before moonrise would provide the best view.
He said small telescopes will be showing the comet for several months to come.
Astronomers confirm the size of the largest comet ever discovered, larger than the Rhode Island comet
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