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Thursday, 5 July, 2001, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Skywatchers await comet

The comet is breaking apart. Image: European Southern Observatory
Skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere could get one of their best opportunities to see Comet Linear on 30 June.

The comet makes its closest approach to the planet (37 million kilometres) after its journey around the Sun. The crumbling snowball is now heading out of the Solar System.

So, the next few weeks represent a last opportunity for northern astronomers (the comet has been sweeping across the southern sky since late April).

It should be visible in the morning sky with binoculars or even the naked eye. The place to look is just above and to the right of the brilliant planet Venus, a few hours before dawn.

Late night revellers going home after a party probably stand a fairly good chance of seeing it with a small pair of binoculars

Jonathan Shanklin, British Astronomical Association
The comet may flare, as it has in recent months when viewed from the Southern Hemisphere.

Comets are balls of ice and dust that did not get incorporated into planets when the Solar System was formed.

This particular comet, known as Linear A2, has already started to disintegrate.

It broke into two pieces earlier this spring. Later, one of the two chunks split apart and researchers say there may be many smaller pieces flying through space.

Virgin flight

The comet is making one of its first approaches to the Sun, perhaps even the first one.

It is therefore a "new" comet in which unaltered material from the formation of the Solar System some 4.5 billion years ago may still be present.

Comet Hale-Bopp, seen by thousands in 1997
Comet Hale-Bopp, seen by thousands in 1997
For this reason, the splitting of its nucleus is of particular interest to astronomers.

By spectroscopic observations, they may be able to learn more about the processes that took place at the time of the formation of the Solar System.

Jonathan Shanklin of the British Astronomical Association said the best time to see the comet was around 02:30 BST.

"Late night revellers going home after a party probably stand a fairly good chance of seeing it with a small pair of binoculars," he told BBC News Online.

"It could suddenly be visible with the naked eye or it could disappear completely."

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See also:

 | Sci/Tech
A story of comet death
17 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Comet visible in binoculars
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