by Ashley R Williams, USA Today
Grab your binoculars: A comet that has fascinated scientists for five years is approaching its closest distance from Earth this week – and you might catch a glimpse.
There is a chance to spot the C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS cometalso called K2, on Wednesday or Thursday as he makes the final pass through the solar systemsaid David Jewitt, professor of earth, planetary and space sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles.
But not with the naked eye: Experts say people need at least a small telescope or binoculars to see it.
At a distance of about 170 million miles from Earth, Jewitt warned stargazers that Comet K2 will still be quite a way away. For reference, the sun is about 93 million miles away, he said.
“That’s a hell of a way to go,” Jewitt, who has been studying the comet since 2017, told US TODAY.
Here’s what you need to know about K2 and how to view it.
When was K2 first discovered?
Comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS caught the attention of experts at the Hawaii-based Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System on May 21, 2017. Experts said images of the comet before the 2013 discovery were later found.
According to NASA, it had traveled millions of years from the cold depths of the solar system when it was discovered about 1.5 billion miles from the sun between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus.
K2 was the most distant active comet ever seen when NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope caught it. It was observed 17 times the distance from Earth and the Sun, Jewitt said. Scientists announced in June 2021 that C/2014 UN271, or Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, has surpassed it as the most widely observed comet of all time.
Scientists say Comet K2 came from the Oort Cloud
A frozen “city-sized snowball of ice and dust,” as NASA calls it, K2 is thought to hail from the farthest region of the Solar System from which many comets are thought to have originated: the Oort Cloud. NASA experts said the cloud is a giant spherical shell of icy pieces of space junk the size of mountains or larger.
Astronomers located K2 in a part of the solar system where sunlight is only 1/225th its brightness as we see it from Earth and where temperatures are minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.
The comet “is packed with materials that have been frozen since the beginning of solar system time,” Jewitt said. “When we study these comets, we try to look at material that has survived since the beginning of the solar system.”
How close will K2 get to Earth?
K2 will reach its minimum distance from our planet Wednesday night, about 170 million miles away, said Italy-based astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, director of the Virtual Telescope Project.
K2 is currently the brightest comet in the sky, 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 11:00 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, he declared that the comet’s speed relative to Earth will be 0 miles per second.
“If we look at the component of that speed in our direction — that is, how fast the comet is approaching or leaving us — we get that this component is 0 (miles per second), the time of the minimum distance from us, but they remains less than (6 mph) this month,” he said.
Why K2 fascinates scientists
What makes K2 intriguing to scientists is that it came out of the Oort Cloud at an “unusually large distance,” Jewitt said. Telescope data shows that K2 became active at an “unprecedented” 35 astronomical units, which is the average distance from Earth to the Sun.
K2’s approach distance of about 170 million miles on 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 as far away as the Earth-Sun,” Jewitt said. “It’s really active very far out, and that’s why it’s scientifically interesting because it allows us to study the process that drives activity at very long distances and at very low temperatures.”
Experts believe frozen carbon monoxide has 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 feed for viewers who don’t have a telescope, starting at 6:15 p.m. ET.
Jewitt noted that there are “probably hundreds” of comets that have come closer to Earth than K2 and that it won’t be a “spectacular” observation for the general public. Masi also noted that the full moon will be in the sky on K2’s flyby date, which could make visibility “significantly” difficult, he explained.
But both experts agreed that you can see K2 with binoculars or a small telescope.
The comet will be visible in the constellation Ophiuchus from the northern and southern hemispheres, Masi said.
“A dark sky would provide the best view,” Masi said. He recommends observing K2 over the next few nights as the moon clears the evening sky. Looking up earlier in the evening before moonrise will provide the best view, he added.
Small telescopes will continue to show the comet for several months, he said.
2022 US today.
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Citation: K2, the brightest comet in our solar system, will pass Earth this week: Here’s when to see it (2022, July 13) retrieved 15 July 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07 -k2- brightest-comet-solar-earth.html
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