Not one, but two comets will fly past Earth later this month, one of which will be the third closest comet flyby to occur in recorded history. Both comets seem to share astonishingly similar orbits, which is an interesting clue to their origin, but the second object's true identity was confirmed by the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff in Arizona.
PHOTOS: Discovery Channel Telescope's Epic Cosmic View
Discovered by the University of Hawaii's PanSTARRS telescope on Maui, Hawaii, in January this year, Comet P/2016 BA14 was initially identified as an asteroid, but a joint University of Maryland and Lowell Observatory team used the DCT to zoom in on the interplanetary visitor to find it has a tail, a sign that it is in fact a small comet.
This discovery coincides with the expected flyby of Comet 252P/LINEAR on March 21, which will swing past our planet at a close (yet safe) distance of 3.3 million miles (approximately 14 times the Earth-moon distance). 252P was discovered in 2000 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey and is known to be around 250 meters wide. Comet P/2016 BA14 is thought to be around half that size and will zip past the following day, but will come closer to Earth flying by at a distance of 2.2 million miles (9 times the Earth-moon distance).
The P/2016 BA14 flyby will be the closest recorded comet encounter since the flyby of comet D/1770 L1 (Lexell) in 1770 and C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock) in 1983.
Already this event is notable, but the double encounter is likely more than just a coincidence. In fact, these two objects were likely once part of the same comet.
PHOTOS: Discovery Channel Telescope Approaches 'First Light'
"Comet P/2016 BA14 is possibly a fragment of 252P/LINEAR," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center of NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a NASA news release. "The two could be related because their orbits are so remarkably similar.
"We know comets are relatively fragile things, as in 1993 when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered and its pieces linked to a flyby of Jupiter. 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."