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Comet Could Be Among Largest Ever, Visible Now on Oregon, Washington Coast

Published 07/01/22 at 4:45 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Comet Could Be Among Largest Ever, Visible Now on Oregon, Washington Coast

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(Astoria, Oregon) – What could be one of the largest comets this civilization has ever seen is on its way to the skies above you, and in fact can already be seen on the Washington coast and Oregon coast. Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) requires at least binoculars, however, because it's quite dim, but can be seen in the southern skies. Already, plenty of amazing photographs of it have been taken by amateur astronomers and pros alike. (Photo courtesy NASA / Hubble Telescope)

Comet K2 is expected to be closest to Earth on July 14, and by then NASA and other astronomers believe it could be even bigger than it is now. That's no small feat: right now, the coma – or clouds of dust and gas comprising its tail – is at least 81,000 miles in diameter. That's as big as Jupiter and roughly ten times the size of Earth. Scientists think the tail may well be 500,000 miles long.

To add another number into the mix: it's about 17 million miles from Earth right now, and will get its closest to the sun sometime just after July 14.

Comets are full of surprises as they get closer to our sun, and Comet K2 is living up to that promise – and then some. What scientists are really amazed by is that it is so active so far out in the deep, colder regions of space. Normally, gas and dust clouds erupt and create what we're already seeing as they get warmed up by the sun. But something different has been happening all along with Comet K2: when it was first spotted in 2017 at some over one billion miles away, it was already getting bigger.

Location of Comet K2 on August 13, courtesy Eddie Irizarry/ Stellarium.

David Jewitt, a University of California researcher with the Hubble Telescope (which first spotted K2), said it's an extraordinary and unusual chunk of rock and ice. Its behavior is puzzling: it's too cold to be erupting with gas and ice and thus acquiring that fuzzball around it. Jewitt said the theory is there's some kind of sublimation going on there: which is where a substance transfers directly from a solid state into a gaseous one.

Then there's the pure size of the thing: how much bigger will it get? The largest comet ever recorded was C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), which has a nucleus bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Scientists theorize that Comet K2's center could be anywhere from 11 to 100 miles around.

While K2 can be seen anywhere in the world, and certainly in Washington or Oregon inland, the Washington coast and Oregon coast have much less light pollution. Telescopes will be preferable to spot it, but as the comet draws nearer you should be able to see it with binoculars in the southern sky. Look for it around the constellation Ophiuchus.

Dark skies will be an important factor in seeing it, which gives the Oregon coast and Washington coast some edge. Desert regions or open space green areas of the inland portions of the PNW will work as well.

Sadly, it won't be visible with the naked eye.
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