Science

Space: 50,000 years later, the comet is visible again

A small rocky icy body about 1 km in diameter was discovered in March 2022 by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) astronomical sky survey program, which operates the Samuel-Ochin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California.

The comet, detected while orbiting Jupiter, is currently moving towards the Sun and, according to astronomers’ calculations, will reach its perihelion, or closest point to the Sun, on January 12th. The celestial object would then be “10% farther” from the Sun than the Earth (about 150 million km), Nicolas Biver from the Paris-PSL observatory told AFP.

As the comet approaches the Sun, the ice contained in its core sublimates and emits a long trail of dust that reflects the Sun’s light. It is these shiny hairs that we will be able to observe from Earth as C/2022 E3 (ZTF) approaches us.

Seen on 21 and 22 January.

The comet will reach its peak of brightness “when it approaches Earth,” explains Thomas Prince, a professor of physics at Caltech at ZTF. However, this phenomenon will be less impressive than during the passage of its relatives Hale-Bopp (1997) or Neowise (2020), much larger.

The star will be easy to see with good binoculars and perhaps even with the naked eye during part of the night, in a sky without an overly bright moon and without light pollution. “We may be pleasantly surprised and see an object twice as bright as expected,” hopes astrophysicist Nicolas Biver.

The best viewing window should be on the weekend of January 21-22 and a week later. During this period, the comet will pass between the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major. Before diving into the southern hemisphere and returning to the borders of the solar system, its likely cradle.

Ejected from the solar system

This is not the first time a frozen visitor has passed close to the Sun: on a previous journey, it already approached our lands some 50,000 years ago. The comet then returned in a different direction, but did not reach the Oort cloud. This time around, it will likely be “forever ejected from the solar system.”

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