A comet called K2 has piqued scientists’ interest as holding a key to unlock more about the beginning of the solar system.  

First discovered in 2017 with the Hubble telescope, the comet broke the record for “furthest inbound comet” and was named K2 or C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) by NASA. “Furthest inbound comet” simply means it originates from the farthest part of our solar system that has made it closest to Earth.

The origin of K2 is called the Oort Cloud: a cylinder-shaped cloud made of trillions of icy mountain-sized debris that exists in the corner of our solar system. NASA estimates it’s located about 2,000 to 5,000 times the distance between the earth and the sun. 

NASA released four photos of the universe from an even farther distance this week taken using the same telescope that first captured images of K2 five years ago.

Why does K2 pique scientists’ interest?

The great distance between Earth and the Oort Cloud is one of the reasons that glimpsing this comet is so remarkable. It’s traveled a long way to get here.

Scientists can glean information about the environment in which our solar system was first created by analyzing its makeup that otherwise would take decades to travel to and decades more to recover.

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K2 has what scientists call a ‘coma’ or a dust cloud coming from the comet itself that could produce viable material to analyze.

Astronomer and lead researcher on the project, David Jewitt, said that the Oort Cloud, where the comet originated, has temperatures that are as cold as negative 440 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing the gas and dust as hard as rock. 

As it travels toward the sun, “sunlight is heating frozen volatile gases — such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide — that coat the comet’s frigid surface. These icy volatiles lift off from the comet and release dust, forming the coma,” said an update on the Hubble telescope’s NASA page.

Scientists also believe that the gases being released as the comet approaches the sun made it possible for the comet to travel the great distance from the Oort Cloud.  

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“As it approaches the sun, it’s getting warmer and warmer, and the activity is ramping up,” Jewitt said. 

Where and when can you see K2?

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, viewers using binoculars or telescopes will be able to see the comet. Although it’s the brightest comet, it cannot compete with the buck moon also lighting the sky these nights, NASA told USA Today. They suggest viewing the comet in the early evening before the moon fully rises to see the comet at its best. 

There will also be a live-stream available, beginning on Thursday at 4:15 p.m. MDT, hosted by The Virtual Telescope Project located in Italy.

Although Jewitt told USA Today that the comet won’t be “spectacular” to see, the products of the comet’s coma could tell scientists more about the environment surrounding the original creation of our solar system.

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