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Comet lights up night sky

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

LONDON, England -- Skywatchers have their best chance of viewing a fiery new comet which was discovered earlier this year.

Comet Ikeya-Zhang, named after the Japanese and Chinese astronomers who first spotted it on February 1, will be the brightest comet to make an appearance since Hale-Bopp in 1997.

It has been visible as a faint smudge low in the western sky since the middle of last month but can now be seen with the naked eye until around 9pm BST (2000 GMT) for the next few days.

After being spotted in February it passed within 47 million miles of the sun at midnight on March 18 before heading back towards the outer solar system.

It will make its closest swing by Earth on April 28-30, but will miss us by a comfortable 37 million miles.

Robin Scagell, from the UK's Society for Popular Astronomy, said: "It's going to look like a small wisp of light in the sky.

"The comet has a pronounced tail extending over five to 10 degrees, which is about 10 times as long as the width of the moon."

Until now it has appeared close to the sun in the evening sky and will remain so until the middle of April when it will be close to the w-shaped constellationof Cassiopeia.

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.

"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," Steve Maran of the American Astronomical Society said.

Ikeya-Zhang is a periodic comet, which means it returns to the inner Solar System on a regular basis.

It would have been visible in 1661 and may also have been seen in 1273 and 877.

Some calculations suggest that on a previous occasion it might have split in two, with the larger fragment returning in 1532.

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


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