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March 12, 2016

A small comet is racing toward Earth right now, heading for a close approach on March 21st. Despite what you might see online, though, it’s absolutely no threat to hit us — it’ll miss our planet by more than three million miles.

Comet 252P/LINEAR was discovered in the year 2000. It was picked up by an automated search for Near-Earth Objects — comets and asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth. Such objects could someday hit Earth. Finding them and tracking their orbits could provide enough lead time to deflect them from a collision course. Using telescopes at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the LINEAR project has discovered more than 2500 of these objects.

Comet 252P isn’t very big, so it’s not expected to get very bright. In fact, even at its peak, you’ll probably need a telescope to see it — even though it’s one of the closest comets ever recorded.

Right now, it’s below the horizon for most northern-hemisphere skywatchers. It’ll begin climbing into view soon, though. On March 25th, it’ll cross the tail of Scorpius, which will be quite low in the south shortly before dawn. After that, it’ll climb higher in the sky in a hurry. It’ll pass close to the left of the triangle formed by bright Mars, Saturn, and Antares. And in early April, the comet will move into Ophiuchus, which stands above Scorpius — beginning its journey back into the outer solar system. It’ll return to the inner solar system in 2021.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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