A comet that has not been seen from Earth for tens of thousands of years is visible in the sky this month.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered on March 2, 2022 by astronomers Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin using the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in California. At the time, the comet was just inside Jupiter’s orbit, some 399 million miles (643 million km) from the sun. Fast forward to today, and the comet has already made its closest approach to the sun and in a few weeks will make its closest approach to Earth on February 1.
Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) co-principal investigator Tom Prince and Michael Kelley of the University of Maryland, the facility’s comet expert, told Space.com that the comet was an exciting discovery. , even for astronomers who spend their careers hunting such objects. “Having discovered the object initially, we were very excited to see that it was indeed a comet and was likely to be seen as an object with the naked eye as it got closer. of the Earth,” Prince said. “The solar system is a fascinating place and much more than the sun and the planets.”
Related: Stunning photos of the beautifully green comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
When the comet was first discovered, astronomers weren’t sure of its identity, Prince told Space.com in an interview.
“When we first discovered the object, we didn’t know if it was an asteroid or a comet,” Prince said. being seen.”
“The discovery was made by looking for moving objects in five images taken about three and a half minutes apart,” Prince said. “In each successive frame, the object moved slightly relative to the background stars. Sear software written by Frank Masci of Caltech was used to find moving objects in the ZTF data. Bryce Bolin said used the software while at Caltech and reported the moving object to the Minor Planets Center.”
Ultimately, it was Comet C/2022 E3’s (ZTF) orbit that allowed researchers to conclusively identify it as a comet. “At the time it was reported, March 2, 2022, the object was not known to be a comet, only that it was a moving object in the solar system,” Prince said. “After the object was reported to the Minor Planet Center, many other observatories made measurements that better defined the object’s orbit and showed that it came from the outer solar system.” Prince added that the Zwicky Transient Facility’s wide field of view allows it to survey the entire visible sky every two nights, making it well suited for NASA-funded searches for comets and asteroids.
Kelley added that the orbit of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) offers some clues to its origins. “The orbit indicates that it comes from the edge of our solar system, a distant reservoir of comets that we call the Oort cloud,” Kelley told Space.com. “The Oort cloud is large. So large that it surrounds all other objects in our solar system (planets, asteroids, etc.), and is probably about a light-year in diameter.”
Read more: Oort cloud: the icy shell of the outer solar system
While the Zwicky Transient Facility discovers a few comets each year, Kelley said finding a bright comet that can be seen with the naked eye is always exciting. “Finding bright comets like ZTF is special for comet astronomers. Bright comets give us the best opportunities to determine how comets formed and how they have changed since then.”
The two researchers told Space.com that they are eagerly awaiting the public’s reaction to this rare comet and the photos of amateur astronomers it will produce. “Enjoy it and try to see it with a telescope or binoculars if possible,” Kelley said. “It may not be as beautiful as in the photos, but seeing it with your own eyes is a unique experience.”
“Comets like this are messengers from the far reaches of our solar system, taking tens of thousands of years to find their way into our vicinity,” Prince added. “We hope the public will be as excited as we are about this comet’s visit to the inner solar system.”
Hoping to observe C/2022 E3 (ZTF)? Our guides to the best telescopes and the best binoculars can help. You can also check out our guides on how to photograph the moon, as well as our best cameras for astrophotography and our best lenses for astrophotography to get started.
Editor’s note: If you take comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) and want to share it with Space.com readers, send your photos, comments, name and location to firstname.lastname@example.org.