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Comet C / 2022 E3 (ZTF), discovered in March 2022 by astronomers from the Zwicky Transient Facility, reached its perihelion on January 12 and will approach Earth tomorrow, February 1, at a distance of 0.28 astronomical units (∼42 million kilometers). This is a unique opportunity to observe it, as its last close pass dates back 50,000 years ago! Fortunately, it should be bright enough to be seen through the most modest viewing instruments, even with the naked eye, if conditions are optimal.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) last touched Earth during the Ice Age and was inhabited by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. In other words, now is the time to watch him. When it reaches its perigee tomorrow, it will be about 42 million kilometers from our planet. Then it will be located near the North Celestial Pole (hence, next to the North Star), in the constellation Giraffe. It will be clearly visible from about 00:49 midnight Wednesday to Thursday at an altitude of 49 degrees above the northern horizon.
This comet is currently circumpolar, which means it stays above the horizon at all times and should therefore be visible most of the night. According to the In-The-Sky.org website, it should be between magnitude 5 and 6. It will peak in the sky at 58 degrees above the horizon around 3:46 am. Then he will disappear in the first rays of dawn. Thursday morning. If you miss the rendezvous, rest assured that the comet will be visible throughout February.
Comet visible to the naked eye if conditions are right
Comet C/2022 E3 has been visible since reaching perihelion, the closest point in its orbit to the Sun; then it was about 160 million kilometers from our star. But next night, its brightness will be such that it will be normally visible to the naked eye, especially in areas free from light pollution (and assuming clear skies, of course). However, binoculars or, at best, a telescope will allow you to see more details of this beautiful green comet.
Illustration of the night sky on Thursday, February 2, showing the north-facing position of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) from New York at 00:45. © TheSkyLive.com
As with all observations, try to find a spot as far away from any light pollution as possible; thus, the comet and its green hairs will be very clearly visible in the black sky.
It will also be relatively easy to spot this Sunday, February 5, when it is next to Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of the Coachman. Two other observation times are worth noting in your diary: on February 10 and 11, the comet will pass about 1.5 degrees from the planet Mars, in the constellation of Taurus; two objects will be visible side by side through binoculars. Then on the night of February 14-15, it will pass in front of the Hyades cluster, not far from the star Aldebaran. In the following days, it will continue its advance in the constellation Taurus, but its luminosity will gradually decrease.
Trajectory of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) from January 27 to February 6, 2023 (each point indicates its position at 1 am Paris time on the indicated date). Northeast at the top of the map. © Stelvision.com/Carine Souplet
Overview of the early solar system
Judging by the inclination of its orbital plane, comet C/2022 E3 originates from the far reaches of our solar system, most likely from the Oort Cloud, a reservoir of cometary nuclei located about a light year from the Sun. “Comets arriving from these distant regions may have delivered water to the early Earth and hold important clues to the chemistry of star and planet birth,” said Paul Wiegert, professor of physics and astronomy at Western University.
Its close passage will allow astronomers to obtain some information through spectroscopic analysis, in particular, thanks to the observations of the James Webb telescope. “We will be watching this from all sides. This is not the comet of the century, but we are happy that we can observe such comets once a year or two, because we consider them to be the remnants of the formation of the solar system, ” Nicolas Biver, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory and president of the Comet Commission of the Astronomical Society of France, explains to AFP.
Experts say this comet may never return to our solar system even in 50,000 years. Indeed, it will be so far away from the Sun that it will hardly feel the effect of its gravitational force; then other stars could interact with it, changing its speed and trajectory and finally throwing it out of our system.