Twin Comets to Make Historic Flyby of Earth

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Comet Lovejoy (2014 Q2) was spotted from Australia on Dec. 13, 2014. (Photo: By Serrgey75/Shutterstock)

NASA has given the world a cosmic heads-up on the approach of not one, but two comets in "close" proximity to Earth. The beautifully named Comet P/2016 BA14 and Comet 252P/LINEAR will each pass 2.2 million miles and 3.3 million miles respectively by our planet. In the case of BA14, that distance is the third smallest ever recorded –- and the closest approach since 1770.

Since I neglected to start this article with anything along the lines of "we're all going to perish, watch 'House of Cards Season 4' while you can now!," you'll be happy to know that neither comet poses a threat to Earth. NASA has made clear that both orbits will push the twins "safely" past us, giving us a time to catch our breath and enjoy at least another season of "Game of Thrones" before the next cosmic threat emerges.

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

What's interesting about both comets, besides their potential to wipe us out sometime down the road, is their unusual orbit, a characteristic potentially linking them to the same body of rock and ice.

"Perhaps during a previous pass through the inner-solar system, or during a distant flyby of Jupiter, a chunk that we now know of as BA14 might have broken off of 252P," added Chodas.

While BA14 isn't expected to brighten significantly during its approach of the sun, 252P is already exceeding expectations. When it returns to to Northern Hemisphere skies around March 26-27, the comet may be visible to the naked eye.

"It won’t be a show-stopper but it’s certainly a lovely target for binoculars and astro-photographers," writes Tanya Hill in The Conversation.

For those interested in the number one closest comet flyby (considered a galactic near-miss), look no further than July 1, 1770. On that date, Lexell's Comet passed by Earth at an astoundingly close 1.4 million miles. The comet was so large and bright, its coma was recorded as four times the size of the full moon.