Astronomers recently discovered a green comet approaching Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.
Here’s how, where, and when to see Comet ZTF as it passes Earth in late January and early February.
The comet will be closest to Earth on February 2.
We could be the last people to see the green comet hurtling past Earth from the outer reaches of the solar system in late January and early February.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF), or comet ZTF for short – the name astronomers gave this space snowball after the Zwicky Transient Facility discovered it in March – hasn’t been in our cosmic neighborhood since the last Ice Age.
Researchers calculated that the icy ball of gas, dust and rock has been orbiting the sun for about 50,000 years, meaning Neanderthals were still roaming Earth and humans had just first migrated from Africa when the comet last whizzed by.
Without telescopes or binoculars, those ancient peoples may not have seen the comet at all. And there may never be a chance to see it again.
“Some predictions suggest that this comet’s orbit is so eccentric that it’s no longer in orbit — so it won’t return at all and just keep going,” Jessica Lee, an astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Newsweek.
So it may be worth looking for Comet ZTF and becoming one of the few people to ever see it up close. Here’s what you need to know to maximize your chances.
When can you see the green comet?
According to NASA, the green comet was visible just before sunrise in the northern hemisphere in late January. Amateur astronomers took pictures of the green comet to show what you could see.
A fully shadowed new moon on Jan. 21 provided an ideal dark sky to spy on the comet.
If you missed that, your last, best chance of seeing the comet in the Northern Hemisphere was on and around Monday, January 30, when ZTF was between the end of the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star.
Then the comet will be visible in the southern hemisphere on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, when it makes its closest pass to Earth since the Stone Age at about 26 million miles away, according to EarthSky. That’s nearly 109 times the average distance from the moon, but the comet burns so brightly that it could still be visible in the night sky.
The comet is expected to be brightest on January 31 and February 1, although the moon will be bright and the comet will be “the faintest object that can be seen without optical aid in a very bright, very dark sky,” according to de Adler Planetarium.
It is important to set yourself up for success as you try to recognize it.
How to spot the green comet
Spotting Comet ZTF may require a telescope at first, but as it approaches Earth, viewers may be able to spot it with binoculars or even the naked eye.
“Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but if it continues its current trend in brightness, it will be easy to see with binoculars, and it is quite possible that it will become visible to the unaided eye under dark skies,” NASA wrote in a statement. update on December 29.
For the best view, choose a cloudless night and head far away from city lights to the darkest skies possible. If the moon is dim, or at least if it’s below the horizon, the sky will be even darker.
If you’re near an urban area, you may want to bring binoculars or even a telescope, just in case the lights drown out the comet to the naked eye.
Where to look in the night sky for Comet ZTF
Look at the right stars to see the green comet. According to EarthSky.org, the comet passes below Polaris — the North Star at the tip of the Little Dipper — and will be visible near the star on Jan. 30. It will appear earlier in the evening as it approaches Polaris.
“It will probably stand out from other stars because it looks a little fuzzy compared to other stars,” Thomas Prince, director of the WM Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech, told FOX Weather.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the comet will be about 1.5 degrees from Mars on Feb. 10, Prince said. That’s about the width of your little finger when you hold it at arm’s length. If you can see Mars shining brightly in the sky, look around it for the comet.
EarthSky publishes maps to help you find the reference objects – Hercules, Polaris and Mars – in the night sky.
Why the comet is green
The comet has a “greenish coma, short broad dust tail and long faint ion tail,” according to NASA.
Many comets glow green. Laboratory research has linked this aura to a reactive molecule called dicarbon, which emits green light when sunlight causes it to decay.
Dicarbon is common in comets, but not usually found in their tails.
That’s why the coma — the haze around the ball of frozen gas, dust and rock at the center of a comet — glows green, while the tail remains white.
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