New-found comet will become visible to naked eye

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A comet discovered by astronomers this year and heading past Earth will be bright enough to see with the naked eye later this month.

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

During the second half of March and the first half of April it will brighten rapidly to a point where, under good conditions, it should be visible to the naked eye as a faint smudge in the western sky. Town dwellers will have a harder job seeing it than people in the countryside, although low-powered binoculars should provide a much clearer view.

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

Ikeya-Zhang is a periodic comet, which means it returns to the inner solar system regularly. It would have been visible in 1661 and might also have been seen in 1273 and 877. Some calculations suggest that it could once have split in two, with the larger fragment returning in 1532.

To see the comet at the moment, look low in the western sky with binoculars or a telescope at about 7.15pm. By the first week of April it will be visible until 9pm. It will travel in an arc through the faint constellation of Pisces, but will best be seen by looking to the left of the easier-to-identify Pegasus star pattern. By this Saturday it will be below the constellation of Aries.

In ideal conditions and by looking through binoculars, two separate tails might be apparent, a bright one caused by dust from the comet and a fainter, bluer one created by gas.

Mr Scagell said there was no need to worry about Ikeya-Zhang hitting Earth – it would miss us by 37 million miles.