The University of Reading is urging stargazers to photograph a rare comet

Image source, University of Reading/Damien Beach

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The comet, photographed here in January, will be visible in the night sky until the end of March

  • author, Daisy Stevens
  • Role, BBC News

Stargazers are urged to photograph a comet passing Earth that may be missing its tail.

Researchers at the University of Reading said comets are like cosmic “wind socks” because they can indicate the strength and direction of the solar wind, streams of charged particles from the sun that can damage technology on Earth.

Scientists can use images of this comet – which passes Earth in February and March – to determine the conditions of the solar wind, especially if its tail separates.

Sarah Watson, the doctoral researcher leading the project, said that identifying solar winds could help scientists predict them and limit the damage caused by them.

The university said that the comet – known as C/2021 S3 Pannstars – does not pose a threat to Earth and will be close to the sun.

It has been present in the night sky as of Wednesday, February 14, but will be easier to see in the coming weeks because it appears farther from the sun and will remain above the horizon longer — although it is still not visible to the naked eye.

Image source, University of Reading/Gerald Reimann

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The researchers said that the comet's tail may look like this image of Comet Leonard

The university said that charged particles in the solar wind could harm satellites and astronauts, and if they collide with the Earth's magnetosphere, they would cause a communications outage.

Watson said the comet's head breaking off is a “rare sight” and may allow the team to determine if there is an increase in solar wind activity.

“We need a lot of timed images of the comet to build a picture of its journey through our solar system,” she said.

“It's a fantastic opportunity for amateur astronomers to get out their telescopes and capture a truly amazing cosmic moment and make a major contribution to some important science.”

The comet is expected to be visible until the end of March.

Anyone who picks up the comet has been urged to send it to Ms Watson via the university.

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