Fractured comet to make near-Earth pass today
Over the next two daysa pair of comets will make dual close proximity flybys of Earth. It istheorized that at some point the comets had formed a single body,which may have fractured in two as it traveled through the solarsystem.
The first of the twincomets, 252P/LINEAR, was discovered on April 7, 2000, by MassachusettsInstitute of Technology's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research(LINEAR) survey. At the time 252P/LlNEAR was believed to be a lonewanderer.
However, the discoveryof the comet P/2016 BA14 on January 22, 2016, following a suspiciouslysimilar trajectory to 252P/LINEAR has led some to theorize that thebodies used to form a single unified comet.
At some point in itshistory, the progenitor comet must have somehow fractured in two,resulting in the smaller P/2016 BA14 body splintering away from252P/LINEAR, which according to recent observations is around twice the size of its smaller cousin.
Observations made ofthe comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 prior to its impact with Jupiter in 1994support the premise of the theory by exemplifying ascenario in which the influence of a very large solar system body, inthis case Jupiter, succeeded in fracturing a comet into numerouspieces.
252P/LINEAR will be thefirst comet to buzz Earth, with the point of closest approachoccurring today at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.2 million km)at approximately 8:14 am EDT. On March 22, the smaller comet P/2016BA14 will safely glide by at a distance of 2.2 million miles (3.5million km), with closest approach estimated for 10:30 am EDT.
Unfortunately, neitherpass will be visible to the naked eye due to the diminutive sizes ofthe comets, though the flybys may be observable to astronomerswith heavy duty telescopes. Regardless of the underwhelming visualimpact of the events, the pass of P/2016 BA14 will be recorded in thehistory books as the third closest flyby of a comet in recordedhistory.
Follow up observationsof the twin comets are set to be made by the Hubble Space Telescopeand NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in an attempt to determinewhether the comets did indeed originate from a single larger body.
For members of thepublic concerned about just how close the duo will come on their nextpass there is no need to worry, as the March 22 pass is predicted tobe the closest the comets will come to Earth in the next 150 years.