Astronomers to keep close watch in closest ever flyby of 'twin' comets

Washington: Astronomers the world over kept their high-end telescopes set on the sky on Monday to see the closest ever flyby of two comets that may have more in common than their intriguingly similar orbits — they may be twins of a sort.

Comet 252P/LINEAR, approximately 750 feet in size, will zip past Earth on Monday at a range of about 5.2 million kms. On Tuesday, comet P/2016 BA14 will safely fly by our planet at a distance of about 3.5 million kms.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

This will be the third closest flyby of a comet in recorded history next to comet D/1770 L1 (Lexell) in 1770 and comet C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock) in 1983.

“Comet P/2016 BA14 is possibly a fragment of 252P/LINEAR. The two could be related because their orbits are so remarkably similar,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center of NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

While both comets will safely fly past at relatively close distances, anyone hoping to see them will need powerful, professional-grade telescopes, due to their relatively small size.

The time of closest approach for comet 252P/LINEAR on March 21 was around 8:14 am EDT (5:44 pm India time).

The time of closest approach for P/2016 BA14 on March 22 will be around 10:30 am EDT (8 pm India time).

The approaches of these two comets will be the closest they come to Earth for the foreseeable future.

“22 March will be the closest comet P/2016 BA14 gets to us for at least the next 150 years," said Chodas, adding that “Comet P/2016 BA14 is not a threat. Instead, it is an excellent opportunity for scientific advancement on the study of comets.

Comet P/2016 BA14 was discovered on 22 January this year by the University of Hawaii's PanSTARRS telescope on Haleakala, on the island of Maui.

It was initially thought to be an asteroid, but follow-up observations showed a faint tail, revealing that the discovery was, in fact, a comet.

The orbit of this newly discovered comet, however, held yet another surprise.

Comet P/2016 BA14 follows an unusually similar orbit to that of comet 252P/LINEAR, which was discovered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey on April 7, 2000.

The apparent coincidence may be an indication of twin nature in that comet.

Observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope of comet 252P/LINEAR and by NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility of comet P/2016 BA14 will further investigate their possible twin nature.