Earth’s night sky gets a surprise visitor this month.
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF will make its closest approaches to Earth and the Sun in the coming weeks. The comet was first discovered in March 2022 by astronomers at the Zwicky Transient Facility, part of the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, when it was 399 million miles (643 million kilometers) away. ) of the sun, just inside the orbit of Jupiter. Since then, comet C/2022 E3 ZTF has come very close to the Sun and Earth.
In fact, at 11:00 p.m. EST on January 12 (04:00 GMT on January 13), the comet will make its closest approach to the sun, known as perihelion. Meanwhile, skywatchers might be able to observe the comet with the naked eye, if conditions are right you should be able to find it with binoculars or a telescope. Even if you don’t have the right conditions or the optics to spot C/2022 E3 ZTF, you can watch a free live webcast from the Virtual Telescope Project through its website (opens in a new tab) or his Youtube channel (opens in a new tab).
Related: Watch a comet make its closest approach in 50,000 years online next week
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF has an orbital period of 50,000 years, which means that it has not approached Earth since the Upper Paleolithic period, the time of the first Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Not only has the comet not been visited for some time, but this could also be the last time it comes to us. Its orbit is not closed, meaning it does not return to the same angular position it started at. Due to its highly parabolic orbit, C/2022 E3 ZTF will return to deep space after making its closest approach to Earth – possibly never to return again. Jessica Lee, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Newsweek (opens in a new tab) that “predictions suggest that this comet’s orbit is so eccentric that it is no longer in an orbit – so it will not return at all and will simply continue.”
Several astrophotographers around the world have already taken magnificent images of the comet as it passes through the solar system. Its coma, the cloud of gas and debris that surrounds the comet’s nucleus, has a distinctive green color in photographs due to its chemical composition. The green color suggests the presence of diatomic carbon, or dicarbons, molecules with two carbon atoms bonded together.
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF should be visible throughout the month, not just at perihelion on January 12. Following this close approach to the sun, the comet will pass within 26 million miles (42 million km) of Earth on February 2.
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF presents an excellent skywatching opportunity for skywatchers of all skill levels. If you don’t have the gear you need (or want!), be sure to check out our guides to finding the best binoculars and telescopes to view the comet or other objects of interest in the sky. To take the best images of comets possible, we have recommendations on the best cameras for astrophotography and the best lenses for astrophotography.