A comet discovered last year should be visible with binoculars — and may even be visible with the naked — when it reaches its closest approach to Earth in the coming weeks. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
The comet, known as C/2022 E3 (ZTF) — “a mouthful of a name,” NASA acknowledges — is on a journey of astronomical proportions. It is classified as a long-period comet, meaning it takes more than 200 years to complete an orbit. But its path may be much further reaching.
“We don’t have an estimate for the furthest it will get from the Earth yet — estimates vary — but if it does return it won’t be for at least 50,000 years,” Jessica Lee, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, told Newsweek in an interview.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will make its nearest approach to the sun on Jan. 12 and pass closest to Earth on Feb. 2 — a distance of about 26 million miles, according to Space.com. In the Nothern Hemisphere, observers will be able to spot the comet in the northwest morning sky throughout January as it nears Earth, according to NASA. It will become visible south of the equator in early February.
“Comets are notoriously unpredictable,” NASA said. But if this one continues its current path, it will be visible with binoculars and possibly visible with the naked eye under dark skies. It won’t quite reach the luminosity of Comet NEOWISE, which captured widespread attention in the summer of 2020.
“But it’s still an awesome opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system,” NASA said.
The best place to spot the comet — and any celestial sight, for that matter — will be far away from city lights and populated areas. Manmade light sources can interfere with light from the night sky, dampening their brightness.
A bright moon can also interfere with stargazing — making the new moon on Jan. 21, and the days surrounding it, an ideal time to search for the comet.
Because their orbits journey so far out into space, most known long-period comets have been spotted only once in recorded history, NASA says. Countless others have never been spotted by human eyes.
“Some have orbits so long that the last time they passed through the inner solar system, our species did not yet exist,” the space agency says. One comet that closely approached Mars in 2014 will not visit the inner solar system again for another 740,000 years.
Will Katcher, masslive.com