Year’s brightest comet flies by Earth this weekend

Backyard astronomers will get a visual feast this weekend when a comet that orbits between Jupiter and the Sun will be closest to Earth.

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Comet Wirtanen reaches its closest approach to Earth, a mere 7.1 million miles, Sunday evening and early into Monday, making it one of the 10 closest flybys in 70 years, according to NASA.

Viewers are expected to be able to see Wirtanen through binoculars and with the naked eye, space officials said.

"This will be the closest Comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries," Paul Chodas, a manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said in a release. "This could be one of the brightest comets in years."

Comet Wirtanen was discovered in 1948 by astronomer Carl Wirtanen. The ball of rock, dust and frozen gases is about 0.7 miles wide. Its orbit is 5 1/2 years.

The comet has already been visible through telescopes.

The University of Maryland is leading an observation campaign, with international participation among professional and amateur astronomy groups.

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