Next week two comets will make record-breaking close flybys of Earth. Although astronomers assure that there is no danger of either near-Earth object (NEO) striking our planet, one of the comets will mark the closest pass by Earth in recorded history since 1770. This comet is Comet PanSTARRS (P/2016 BA14), which will pass by at around noon on Tuesday and come within nine lunar distances, or around 2.1 million miles, from the Earth.
The event will be the closest that a comet will come so close to Earth since Lexell's comet missed it by 1.4 million miles in 1770. After its discovery in June, it was seen in skies in late June and early July, with Charles Messier, the astronomer who discovered it, describing its coma as more than four times the size of a full moon.
Prior to P/2016 BA14, Comet 252P/LINEAR will make a flyby on Monday and will come within 3,290,000 miles from the Earth, which equates to around 14 times the Earth-moon distance and makes it the fifth closest comet flyby in the history of our planet. 252P/LINEAR will only be visible in the southern hemisphere until March 26 to March 27, where it will be present in Northern Hemisphere skies.
The event is causing some astronomers to speculate about the comets' origins due to their similar orbits.
"Although the bright moon might interfere with the view, astronomers hope to use radio telescopes to obtain radar images during this comet's pass," said astronomer Bob King. "One question is this: did comet 252P split in two? Is that why we're now seeing not one but two comets on similar orbits? We may find out soon."
Despite their close proximities to the Earth, the average person will be unable to see these comets this month, although there is a chance that 252P/LINEAR will brighten enough to be visible with a pair of binoculars. You can also bet that amateur and professional astronomers are gearing up with their telescopes to catch a glimpse of these historic flybys.
Over the past few years, numerous comets and asteroids have been passing by the Earth at close distances, prompting NASA and other agencies to focus more on the potential to deflect these NEOs from the Earth's atmosphere should they come too close.
For those without binoculars or telescopes, astronomer Gianluca Masi will broadcast a live telescopic image of 2016 BA14's fly-by of the Earth on March 21 and March 22 starting at 4 p.m CDT.