NASA scientists say the two comets will come closer than any other in almost 250 years.
There are a few famous comets buzzing around the solar system, but according to a report from Sky & Telescope, March 22nd will be a day to remember. The comet PanSTARRS (P/2016 BA14) is expected to swoop within just nine lunar distances of the Earth around 4:00 UT of that day. The flyby will be the second closest comet to the planet’s surface on record.
The comet will come within just 2.1 million miles, or 3.4 kilometers of the Earth’s surface. It falls just short of Lexell’s Comet, which missed the Earth by just 1.4 million miles, or 2.2 kilometers on July 1, 1770. Lexell’s comet was spotted by Charles Messier, but its orbit was calculated by mathematician Anders Johan Lexell in the 18th century. Messier described the comet as four times the size of a full moon.
As P/2016 BA14 blasts from Canis Major to Ursa Major over the course of seven nights, viewers on Earth are surely in for a treat. The comet was first spotted this year by the PanSTARRS 1 telescope, and bore striking similarities to the comet 252P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2000 and expected to approach Earth on a similar path this month.
Astronomers Michael Kelley and Matthew Knight believe that the two comets came from a similar origin. They both share a ‘tail,’ and researchers believe that P/2016 BA14 broke off of 252/LINEAR as they blasted through the sky. The P in the comets’ names refers to “periodic,” and refers to the repeated orbits the two rocks make around the sun.
Viewers can expect to see 252P/LINEAR and P/2016 as they make their way north from the Southern Hemisphere over the next few weeks. The comets are expected to grow rapidly in the night sky, showing a brilliant trail behind them, referred to as a “coma.”