Comet now visible in night sky may never return to Earth

A comet that is now visible in the sky with the right equipment may never fly past Earth again – but how do you spot it and where to look?

C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered on March 2, 2022 by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) – an astronomical survey conducted by the Palomar Observatory in California – and based on predictions that it could be the first naked Eye comet making waves since NEOWISE zoomed past our planet in 2020.

The comet, which is currently around 131 million kilometers from Earth, will reach its closest point to the sun, or perihelion, on January 12, 2023 before approaching our planet on February 1, 2023 and is approximately 26 million miles from us.

Comets are “cosmic snowballs” made of frozen gas, dust, and rock that orbit the Sun. As they get closer to our star, these objects are irradiated with increasing radiation, releasing gases and debris. This process forms a glowing atmosphere around the comet (known as a coma) and two huge tails of gas and dust.

Artist's impression of a comet
Stock Image: Artist’s illustration of a comet. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) may soon become visible to the naked eye.

Some predictions suggest that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is on a type of orbit – one that looks like an open curve – where the cosmic snowball will shoot back into space and never return to the inner Solar System .

“We don’t yet have an estimate of how far it will be from Earth – estimates vary – but when it returns it won’t take at least 50,000 years,” said Jessica Lee, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich news week. “Some predictions suggest that this comet’s orbit is so eccentric that it’s out of orbit — so it’s not going to come back at all and just keep going,” Lee said.

In any case, it will be a unique opportunity to catch a glimpse of the comet. While you could wait until the second half of January when C/2022 E3 (ZTF) might become visible to the naked eye – this isn’t a given and also depends on factors like light pollution at your location – it might be around the object now to see if you have good binoculars or a telescope.

With this equipment, you may be able to see the comet in the early hours before sunrise as it passes the Corona Borealis constellation, although the moon’s bright light obscures the view.

It is best to try to view from a dark place away from light pollution on a clear night. The object won’t be the easiest to spot, said Robert Massey, deputy chief executive of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society news week.

The comet is moving in the general direction of Polaris, the North Star, where we’ll find it in early February, by which time it should be visible throughout the night.

Astronomers think it may just be visible to the unaided eye at this point, provided your location has good visibility, but predicting comet brightness is notoriously difficult.

If it ever reaches that magnitude, the comet will likely fade below naked-eye visibility by the second week of February. And by April it will be close to the Sun in the sky and much fainter, so it will be very difficult to find even with a telescope. Comet now visible in night sky may never return to Earth

Rick Schindler

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