Two messengers from the stars are sweeping past Mother Earth on March 21 and 22, heralding the new spring, and Jupiter will cosy up to the moon.
Though the twin comets gracing our skies this month will require a telescope, binoculars or the Internet for true viewing, another a sky phenomenon visible to the naked eye will appear as brilliant Jupiter nuzzles the nearly-full moon.
What comets 252P/LINEAR and P/2016 BA14 (also known as PanSTARRS) lack in name cachet, they make up for in kismet: The first one, a striking emerald green, is unexpectedly brightening, and the second one is passing closer to Earth than any comet has in 246 years. Their twin approach makes for a unique astronomical happening.
“This is one for the record books,” said Michael Kelley of the University of Maryland to USA Today. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for professionals to learn more about comets, and if you have a chance to try to find them, it’s a fantastic chance to see part of history as it happens.”
Both comets pass within a safe distance from Earth—well past the moon—with 252P at three million miles away and PanSTARRS at 2.1 million miles. A full moon aside, the twin flybys promise an amazing observational opportunity. Astronomers will scrutinize them through the Hubble and Spectra telescopes.
Comet number one at the moment is visible by telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, but it will edge above the Northern Hemisphere on March 26–27, Earthsky.org says, and may be seen with binoculars then.
The only comet to have come closer than PanSTARRS is Lexell’s Comet on July 1, 1770, which was a “mere” 1.4 million miles from us, according to Sky and Telescope. That flyby will be broadcast online via the Virtual Telescope Project.
Before the twin comet dramas unfold, the sunset on the evening of March 21, the sunset will reveal a stunning sight: Majestic Jupiter will nuzzle the nearly full moon, Earthsky.org tells us.