The unusual Comet Elenin is expected to pass within 21 million miles of Earth on October 16, 2011 and speeding by at more than 85,000 mph—so fast it could travel from Earth to the Moon in less than five hours.
Discovered by amateur Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin in Lyubertsy, Russia on December 10, 2010—who accessed the International Scientific Optical Network's robotic observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico—the astronomical community has erupted with the excited possibility the celestial traveller could generate the most spectacular meteor showers ever recorded.
Although the comet's path is expected to change as it draws closer to the sun, astronomical calculations appear to show Elenin's perihelion occurring well inside Earth's orbit by September 5th.
Astronomers believe the comet will be visible with a good pair of field binoculars about the middle of August. After then it should become visible in the Northern hemisphere's predawn sky with the naked eye.
Comet watchers claim that the huge dust trail behind Elenin might become very bright with the tail glowing across the night sky.
The Earth is expected to pass through the giant tail, and the debris may generate fantastic meteor showers for as long as two and a half months.
Comet generates controversy and conspiracy theories
Recently, a growing number of conspiracy theories have sprung up around the discovery of the long-period comet. Some are linking its appearance on the other side of the sun to the 9.0 earthquake that devastated northern Japan. Others believe it may fulfill the "prediction" some read into the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012.
A few, with private channels to unnamed professional sky watchers claim the comet's orbit is unstable and may encounter dark bodies such as the cometary debris known as the "Taurid objects." They go on to argue that Elenin carries a huge cloud of material with it and if the orbital path remains consistent the Earth will collide with that debris.
Of course, many astronomers anticipate that happening. It's why there would be astounding meteor showers after the comet's passing.
Elenin's orbital path seems to be constantly changing, however, as it falls inwards towards the sun. As one observer has noted, when Leonid Elenin discovered the comet calculations indicated it would pass by Earth at a distance almost nine times the distance of the Sun. Now, however, recalculations reveal that distance has significantly shrunk to as low as 0.15 AU.
Further perturbations in Elenin's orbital path may be affected by it's passage through the Oort belt—a huge halo of cometary bodies, giant asteroids and debris that encircles the outer solar system.
Will it strike Earth as some fear? No way, says Ray Villard of Space.com ["Will Earthbound Comet Fulfill 2012 Prophecy?"].
Villard points out that "The closest ever-recoded flyby of Earth was comet Lexell in 1770, which passed at 1.4 million miles. On Jan. 26th that year a magnitude 9.0 earthquake took place off the west coast of the North America."
Comets and earthquakes again. Could there really be a connection after all?
Although some insist there is a connection ["NASA's Website Accidentally Predicts Another Catastrophic Earthquake in 2011"] virtually all astronomers and geophysicists say no way.
So what can be expected? Well, if all goes right the greatest night time sky show seen in hundreds of years will occur.