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Astronomers Primed to Track Spectacular Comet Encounters

Comet 67P by Rosetta probe
(Image credit: NASA/ESA)

Comets can produce a spectacular show in the night sky, especially if you have binoculars or a telescope to see the fainter ones. And luckily for everyone, at least three known comets are expected to pass closely (but safely) by our planet in the next two years.

That's why the Planetary Science Institute hopes to get both amateurs and professionals in on the action. With the rise of digital imaging and the knowledge that amateurs often have more flexibility in observing targets, there's a hope that people all around the world can look at the three comets and help us to understand more about their nature — particularly during bright outbursts.

"An international campaign observing the comet from around the globe would allow better temporal coverage, allowing 24/7 observations of the comet across all longitudes," said project leader Nalin Samarasinha, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, in a statement.

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The three comets are 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, and 46P/Wirtanen and they are all expected to pass by Earth at distances of between 0.08 and 0.15 astronomical units (with one astronomical unit representing the distance between the Earth and the sun).

One of the things astronomers need is information about dust outbursts. Here is an extreme close-up of what these outbursts look like on a comet (specifically, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen by the Rosetta spacecraft in 2014). (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA)

So what kind of images are the astronomers looking for? Specifically, raw images (no enhancements) showing the comet's dust and gas activity. So far, they have the best times available for 45P/HMP (February and March 2017) and 41P/TGK (January through July 2017); the last comet's activity predictions will be released in 2018.

From looking at the gas and dust, the team says they can figure out how the nucleus of the comet is rotating, how much activity is present, and even information on what the gas in the coma (cometary atmosphere) is made of.

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A similar amateur and professional campaign for Comet ISON — a close comet that eventually broke up during Thanksgiving in 2013 — showed how the comet evolved during an outburst on Nov. 12 that year, the astronomers added. There have been many similar collaborations in the past, including observing comets visited by the missions Deep Impact, EPOXI and Rosetta, for example.

For more details on how to contribute, check out this campaign page by the Planetary Science Institute.

Originally published on Seeker.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.