How to see the giant comet heading our way soon

One of the largest known comets is approaching our planet on the only trip through the inner solar system it will make in our lifetimes.

Five years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a large comet at the greatest distance ever, as it was approaching the sun from afar between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. Now, this giant space snowball is coming for its closest pass by Earth in just a few weeks.

Comet C/2017 K2 will be at the closest point to us in its current oscillation through the inner solar system on July 14th. Even at its closest point, however, it will still be further from us than the average distance between Earth and Mars. This will likely make it difficult to see the comet without at least a small telescope, despite its substantial stature.

There is a significant amount of uncertainty at this point about the size of the comet’s core, according to NASA Solar System Ambassador Eddie Irrizarry and Kelly Kizer Whitt on EarthSky, with different observations suggesting a range between 11 and 100 miles (18 and 161 miles). kilometers). off. This means that C/2017 is somewhere between just legitimately large and the handful of largest comets discovered so far, such as Hale-Bopp and Bernardinelli-Bernstein.

The size of the comet’s tail, or coma, is similarly large and unclear. Early observations suggest that the trail of dust and gases behind C/2017 K2 is anywhere between 81,000 and 500,000 miles (130,000 and 800,000 kilometers) in diameter. So somewhere between the width of one and six Jupiters – that’s a totally epic track.

To see the comet for yourself, you can look to online public observatories, like the Virtual Telescope Project, which is sure to host observation parties at some point. You can also get your hands on a telescope and start practicing object detection now using an app like Stellarium, which will also be able to point your lens in the right direction as the comet approaches.

After passing us in July, C/2017 K2 will continue towards perihelion, which is its closest passage through the sun, before heading back into deep space. Comets tend to behave unpredictably the closer they get to the sun. This one may suddenly become more active and bright, or it may separate and disappear from sight altogether.

Whatever happens, this visit will likely be our only chance to see this comet. Its orbit is so long that it won’t come back for a few million years.

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