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Bright new comet heading our way

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

(CNN) -- As Comet Ikeya-Zhang rounds the sun and approaches the Earth, astronomers wonder if the picturesque ice boulder will become even brighter.

Spotted by amateur sky watchers in February, the comet can continue to be observed in the weeks ahead. Currently it appears low in the western sky just after sunset, near the planet Mars, which resembles a bright red star.

In extremely dark and clear conditions, observers might be able to see Ikeya-Zhang with the naked eye. For the best view of the comet and its long tail, astronomers recommend being far from city lights and using strong binoculars.

"They're good for sweeping around for the comet and actually give you a better view actually than a big telescope," said Steve Maran of the American Astronomical Society.

Travelling in an eccentric orbit, Ikeya-Zhang made its closet approach to the sun on March 18. From our terrestrial perspective, the comet will skirt completely over the sun next week and reappear in the predawn sky.

Heading outbound from the center of the solar system, it will make its closest swing by Earth on April 28.

"At one time or another in the month of April, people most places on Earth where they have a dark sky should see the comet. But it's a lot easier for us up in the Northern Hemisphere because it will be moving progressively north (in the sky)," Maran said.

Ikeya-Zhang could be the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp five years ago. To learn more about comets, Maran recommends that the curious join viewing parties through amateur astronomy clubs, science museums or planetariums.

NASA is doing its part to learn more about the dirty ice travelers. An agency-sponsored mission called Stardust should rendezvous with comet Wild 2 in 2004 to retrieve particles from its tail.

Scientists think comets contain frozen remnants of our early solar system and may have struck Earth in its infancy, seeding the oceans with water.

Usually comets appear brightest when near the sun. But some eccentric ones keep brightening afterwards. It Ikeya-Zhang falls into the latter category, it could contine to brighten during April, according to Sky & Telescope.

After its 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.

CNN Science Correspondent Anne Kellan contributed to this report.


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