Next week, two comets will fly surprisingly close to Earth – and by close, we mean a couple of million miles away, which is very close, astronomically speaking. Many astronomers expect the event with anticipation as the double fly-by could reveal the origin of the celestial bodies.
Comet 252P/LINEAR will pass our planet within 3.3 million miles at 8:14 a.m. Monday, a distance that makes it the fifth-closest comet to zoom in on Earth, according to NASA officials.
Soon after that, comet P/2016 BA14 will come as close as 2.1 million miles at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, which ranks it as the third-closest comet since 1770.
BA14 was initially thought to be an asteroid, but Michael S.P. Kelley of the University of Maryland was among the first astronomers who saw it more like a comet. Scientists have debated whether or not the two comets are related.
If not, Kelley says it would be “some amazing coincidence.” To observe the 252P as it flies by, Kelley has booked the Hubble Space Telescope for nine hours. He is fascinated by comets, which he calls “frozen leftovers of the early solar system.”
It’s pretty unusual and rare to see two comets passing by so close to each other, which supports the idea that the two were one at some point. This theory is actually not so far-fetched because it’s a common occurrence for comets to split in two.
MIT astronomers first discovered the 252P in 2000, while the BA14 was first identified with the help of the Hawaiian observatory Pan-STARRS.
According to Paul Chodas, manager at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Objects, this phenomenon has been observed and verified before. In 1993, when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered, its pieces were linked by astronomers to a flyby of Jupiter.
“Comets are relatively fragile things,” he added. This is why it’s entirely possible that “a chunk that we now know of as BA14 might have broken off of 252P.”
Chodas assured the public that the two comets pose no threat to Earth – and they don’t bring the End of Times, as a pastor “prophesized” some weeks ago. Instead, the fly-bys offer astronomers an excellent opportunity to advance the scientific study of comets.
We need to know more about the orbit of BA14 before we can say for sure that the BA14 comet is related to 252P. Both comets will be relatively dim as they pass over the Southern Hemisphere, as they are kind of small (a few hundred feet in diameter).
Image Source: USA Today