Comet C/2017 K2 still slowly brightening
Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS)
If you have a small telescope, it’s not too late to catch a view of summer’s best comet, C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS). The comet made its closest approach to Earth on July 14, 2022, but it’s still slowly brightening. It will reach its closest point to the sun – perihelion – on December 19, 2022. After that, it will remain a good observing object for another month before fading. But that’s if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and haven’t seen it yet, you’ll want to get a look before about mid-September. From then on it will be cruising through southern constellations.
How to see C/2017 K2
You should be able to see comet K2 as a fuzzy patch of light. The fuzziness is mostly the comet’s gigantic outer atmosphere, or coma. That coma is about 80,700 miles (129,874 km), which is 10 times the Earth’s diameter! You might also see the comet’s tail, while long-exposure images should reveal the comet and its tail in all its glory.
It first became visible in small telescopes from the Northern Hemisphere in May and will remain visible until September. After mid-September, it’ll be close to the southwestern horizon as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. Afterwards, it’ll be best for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.
The comet’s backstory
Astronomers first spotted this comet in 2017 using the Pan-STARRS survey instrument in Hawaii. At the time, they said it was the farthest active inbound comet they’d yet seen. It was between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus when they first saw it. Now it’s in the inner solar system, with closest approach to Earth on July 14. The comet will be closest to the sun several months later, on December 19, 2022. With a small telescope, you should be able to spot the comet throughout the summer.
Comets are mostly rock and ice. They become active when warmed by the sun. However, this comet was already active in 2017. The Hubble Space Telescope took an image of the comet looking like a fuzzy snowball while it was still in the outer solar system. The comet appears to have a large nucleus, and it shows a huge cometary atmosphere or coma.
If the name Comet PanSTARRS rings a bell, that’s because there are many of them. Pan-STARRS is a sky survey that is particularly good at spotting new asteroids, comets, supernovae and the like. This is Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS). At its discovery, K2 was 1.49 billion miles (2.4 billion km) from the sun. That’s 16 times farther away than the Earth is from the sun.
By the way, the new title-holder for farthest active comet is Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein. Astronomers spotted this behemoth comet about 100 times the size of a normal comet. That’s when it was more than 2.7 billion miles (4.4 billion km) from the sun. Comet “Bern-Bern” will have its closest approach on January 21, 2031. But you have nothing to fear from it, as it will be slightly farther away than Saturn’s orbit.
Below we have star charts through August to help you spot K2. Although it appears to be a large comet, it will probably remain a telescope object because it will pass some 168 million miles (270 million km) from Earth.
It should brighten to magnitude 8 or possibly even 7, still too dim for the unaided eye. But you can easily spot an object of this magnitude in a small telescope. The darker the skies, the better the contrast will be.
Comet K2 is big!
Initial observations from the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope (CFH) suggest a nucleus for this comet about 18 to 100 miles (30 to 160 km). But observations with the Hubble Space Telescope indicate the nucleus should be smaller, at some 11 miles (18 km) or less.
If the name K2 reminds you of the second largest mountain on Earth, also named K2, keep in mind that the mountain is 28,251 feet (8,611 meters) tall. If the comet K2 is around 11 miles or 18 km (a reasonable estimate), that translates to about 58,000 feet or 18,000 meters. In other words, the comet K2 dwarfs the mountain K2, which is about half its size.
Almost as big as Jupiter
Another indication that suggests C/2017 K2 is large, or at least very active, is that observations showed it developed a cometary atmosphere, or coma, with a diameter of about 81,000 miles (130,000 km). That would mean this comet’s coma is a sphere of gases 10 times the diameter of planet Earth, or almost as big as the diameter of planet Jupiter. That’s huge!
Also, some early observations detected an incredibly large tail, some 500,000 miles (800,000 km) long.
Scientists think that comets that are too far from the sun shouldn’t sublimate huge amounts of ice. So this comet’s activity is probably driven by a mix of ices with substances like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and molecular oxygen.
Most comets have a nucleus of about 0.5 to 2 miles (1 to 3 km) in diameter, while others may be up to 10 miles (16 km) wide. However, a few are really huge, including Hale-Bopp (37 miles or 60 km), Bernardinelli-Bernstein (93 miles or 150 km) and 95P/Chiron, also known as 2060 Chiron) at 124 miles or 200 km. In fact, 95P/Chiron may be a dwarf planet. However, it showed cometary behavior and thus got a comet designation.
Finder maps for C/2017 K2
When will we see the next bright comet?
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is expected to be as bright as magnitude 5 in January 2023. After that, the next possible good one appears to be comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, which might reach magnitude 5 or 4 in March 2024.
Meanwhile, let’s see what Comet C/2017 K2 has in store for us. Look up!
Comet C/2017 K2 images since closest approach to Earth
Images of Comet PanSTARRS before closest approach to Earth
Bottom line: Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) is a great telescopic object for the rest of summer, slowly brightening toward perihelion, its closest point to the sun.