The comet NEOWISE streaks across the Maine sky on July 21, 2020. Another comet should be visible overhead on Saturday night. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine Wedged between Friday’s snowstorm and another predicted for Monday, Saturday night’s stargazing forecast is looking clear and cold, with no moon to wash out the stunning celestial bodies above.

That’s excellent news if you want to feast your eyes on the once-in-a-lifetime comet currently gracing our heavens for the first time in recorded history.

The comet comes with the less-than-catchy moniker C/2022 E3 (ZTF). It was just discovered in March by astronomers using the wide-field survey camera at the Zwicky Transient Facility at the Palomar Observatory in California. That’s where the “ZTF” in its name comes from. By the time the scientists found it, the comet was already inside Jupiter’s orbit.

Since then, the new long-period comet has gotten brighter.

C/2022 E3 made its closest approach to the sun on Jan. 12 and will be closest to Earth on Feb. 2. However, by then the moon will be just about full. The viewing might never get better than it is on Saturday night, after which the moon starts waxing.

On Saturday, the comet will be viewable with binoculars and maybe even without them.

“Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but if this one continues its current trend in brightness, it’ll be easy to spot with binoculars, and it’s just possible it could become visible to the unaided eye under dark skies,” said Preston Dyches of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

To find C/2022 E3, plan to stay up very late on Saturday night or get up very early Sunday morning. A good star-finding app on your phone will help pinpoint where to look. Alternatively, go to theskylive.com, type in what you’re looking for and the site will provide you with the comet’s live location.

Generally speaking, look at the north sky near the horizon after 1 a.m. C/2022 E3 will be to the west of the constellation Bootes, or below and to the left of the last star in the Big Dipper’s handle. Through binoculars, the comet will appear as a white-green smudge with a tail trailing behind it. As it makes its way across our night sky for the rest of the month, C/2022 E3 will appear higher in the sky and pass right between the Big and Little Dippers.

“This comet isn’t expected to be quite the spectacle that Comet NEOWISE was back in 2020,” Dyches said. “But it’s still an awesome opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system.”

The National Weather Service in Gray is predicting zero cloud cover and a low of 18 degrees for the Portland area on Saturday night. Its Houlton counterpart is calling for the same but with a low of just 8 degrees. So bundle up if you’re going out. It’s also a good idea to let your binoculars acclimatize to the cold air for a while before looking through them. You’ll get a better view.

This is our only chance to see the comet, which hasn’t passed this way in roughly 50,000 years. Comets are large celestial objects made of dust and ice leftover from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Like our own planet, they orbit the sun, which illuminates their long, streaming debris tails.

Another nifty night sky scene to look out for this month happens a few days later, on Jan. 23. That evening, Venus and Saturn will appear just a degree apart — which is just about the width of your index finger held at arm’s length. At the same time, a slim crescent moon will hang just above them. Look for the lovely trio low in the southwest sky, about 45 minutes after the sun vanishes below the horizon.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.