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Future looks bright for new comet

Comet Ikeya-Zhang might have last passed this way 341 years ago.
Comet Ikeya-Zhang might have last passed this way 341 years ago.  

Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- An unexpected visitor to the inner solar system is brightening rapidly and could put on quite a celestial show as it approaches our planet, astronomers said.

Discovered in early February, Comet Ikeya-Zhang has brightened more quickly than expected and is now visible to the naked eye, according to comet experts.

Spotting the primordial ice boulder could prove tricky for awhile. It remains fairly faint without a telescope or binoculars and hovers near the northwestern horizon after sunset, in the vicinity of the constellation Pisces.

But it should increase in brightness as it zooms near the sun. The closest approach takes place on March 18.

Weeks later, Ikeya-Zhang will skirt over the sun and reappear in the morning sky, according to Sky & Telescope magazine. For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the best observations should occur in late April.

It will make its closest swing by Earth on April 28, passing within 37.6 million miles (60.5 million km).

The comet could become as bright as the dimmest stars in the Big Dipper, according to the Planetary Society.

Already, the object has thrilled celestial shutterbugs by developing a picturesque tail.

Moreover, its surrounding cloud, or coma, boasts a high ratio of gas to debris, meaning it should continue to brighten more dramatically in comparison to dustier siblings.

"It is immersed in the very bright zodiacal light which cuts down on the contrast, but the view is still excellent," astronomer Jimmy Westlake told, a NASA-affiliated Web site.

After the comet's appearance on February 1, astronomers concluded within weeks that it is probably the same one that swept through the inner solar system in 1661.

The comet was named for its modern co-discoverers, Daqing Zhang of China and Kaoru Ikeya of Japan. Ikeya has discovered or co-discovered five previous comets, according to Sky & Telescope.


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