Comet LINEAR (formally designated 252P) is coming into view for observers in the Northern Hemisphere during the last few days of March. The comet's arrival has skywatchers excited because this icy space rock is 100 times brighter than expected.
From the Southern Hemisphere, observers have recently been able to spot the comet with the naked eye in very dark areas. Although the moon's light will flood the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, the comet may be visible with binoculars in a sufficiently dark area.
"Don't expect Comet LINEAR to be obvious, with a long tail," Sky & Telescope senior editor Kelly Beatty said in a statement. "Its light isn't concentrated in a single point, but instead is spread out in a soft, round glow, larger than the moon but many thousands of times dimmer." [Skywatching in 2016: The Year's Must-See Events (Calendar)]
Skywatchers observing the comet with telescopes may see the greenish haze surrounding it. This green glow is thought to be created by atoms of diatomic carbon surrounding the comet and fluorescing in the sunlight, the statement said.
Observers should go outside at least 90 minutes before sunrise in a dark area and look for the comet between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius.
The planets and stars can also serve as guideposts for finding the comet. LINEAR will be in line with Mars and Saturn on March 29, and in line with Saturn and Antares (a bright, red star in the constellation Scorpius) on March 31. The moon will also be close by, particularly on March 30; it will be just 3 degrees to the lower right of the comet.
LINEAR passed its closest point to Earth on March 21, at a distance of about 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers). Given that it's now moving farther out into the solar system and away from the sun, astronomers aren't sure how long it will stay this bright.
Observers with very large telescopes also may be able to spot another comet passing near Earth: Comet Pan-STARRS (designated P/2016 BA14). It came within 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) of Earth on March 22.
"The timing of these paired visits is probably no coincidence," said the same statement from Sky & Telescope. "The 'P' in both comets' designations means they are in periodic (elliptical) orbits that bring them near the sun repeatedly — in this case, about every five years. Their orbits are so similar that comet specialists suspect these two bodies are fragments of a single object."
Comet LINEAR was discovered on April 7, 2000, by researchers from the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program (an MIT Lincoln Laboratory program funded by NASA and the U.S. Air Force). The comet's core is estimated to be 750 feet (230 meters) across, according to the statement. Comet Pan-STARRS was discovered by researchers from the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (University of Hawaii) more recently, on Jan. 22, 2016. Its core is estimated to be 350 feet (100 m) across, according to Sky and Telescope.
Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing picture of Comet LINEAR, you can send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at email@example.com.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace