A giant comet from the Oort cloud is heading towards Earth
C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) will make its closest approach to Earth on July 14, 2022. Astronomers aren’t sure how close the comet will be, but we know it won’t pose any danger to our planet. In 2017, astronomers used the Pan-STARRS survey instrument in Hawaii to spot for the first time the comet was heading towards Earth and the inner solar system.
When C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) was first spotted, it was speeding somewhere between Saturn and Uranus. But now, the comet is continuing its journey from the Oort Cloud towards Earth and the inner solar system. As it approaches our planet, people will be able to see the comet with a small telescope. That’s because the comet is twice the size of Mount Everest, and it’s bright and active.
When a comet is active, it is bright enough to be detected from Earth. However, an active comet relies on energy from the sun to heat the gas and form the halo and tail we know as comets. But since the comet traveled from the Oort Cloud toward Earth, it’s unclear how it stayed active for so long.
Not the biggest comet we’ve ever seen
While C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) is definitely massive, it’s not the biggest comet we’ve ever seen. Nor is it the furthest event. Those titles now go to C/2014 UN271, another gigantic comet swooping toward Earth and our inner solar system from the Oort Cloud. As with C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS), the activity of C/2014 UN271 remains a mystery.
Is there something outside the Oort Cloud or possibly inside it that we don’t know about? This is not yet clear. In fact, we humans don’t know much about the Oort Cloud because it’s located on the outer edge of our solar system. Therefore, its existence is mostly a theory. For context, Voyager 1 has already explored farther than any other man-made spacecraft, and it will take another 300 years to reach the Oort Cloud.
From there, though, scientists think it will take another 30,000 years to cross the Oort Cloud. While comets rushing towards Earth and the inner solar system pose no threat to humanity, it would certainly be nice if more research could be done on these celestial bodies. Perhaps, with the right research, we can learn more about the Oort Cloud and even the ancient universe.