A Comet Not Seen in 50,000 Years Is Streaking by Earth Soon

A new­ly dis­cov­ered comet could be vis­i­ble to the naked eye as it shoots past Earth and the Sun in the com­ing weeks for the first time in 50,000 years, astronomers have said.

The comet is called C/2022 E3 (ZTF) after the Zwicky Tran­sient Facil­i­ty, which first spot­ted it pass­ing Jupiter in March last year.

After trav­el­ing from the icy reach­es of our Solar Sys­tem it will come clos­est to the Sun on Jan­u­ary 12 and pass near­est to Earth on Feb­ru­ary 1.

It will be easy to spot with a good pair of binoc­u­lars and like­ly even with the naked eye, pro­vid­ed the sky is not too illu­mi­nat­ed by city lights or the Moon.

The comet “will be bright­est when it is clos­est to the Earth”, Thomas Prince, a physics pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy who works at the Zwicky Tran­sient Facil­i­ty, told AFP.

Made of ice and dust and emit­ting a green­ish aura, the comet is esti­mat­ed to have a diam­e­ter of around a kilo­me­ter (0.62 miles), said Nico­las Biv­er, an astro­physi­cist at the Paris Observatory.

That makes it sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er than NEOWISE, the last comet vis­i­ble with an unaid­ed eye, which passed Earth in March 2020, and Hale–Bopp, which swept by in 1997 with a poten­tial­ly life-end­ing diam­e­ter of around 60 kilometers.

But the newest vis­it will come clos­er to Earth, which “may make up for the fact that it is not very big”, Biv­er said.

While the comet will be bright­est as it pass­es Earth in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, a fuller moon could make spot­ting it difficult.

For the North­ern Hemi­sphere, Biv­er sug­gest­ed the last week of Jan­u­ary, when the comet pass­es between the Ursa Minor and Ursa Major constellations.

The new moon dur­ing the week­end of Jan­u­ary 21–22 offers a good chance for stargaz­ers, he said.

“We could also get a nice sur­prise, and the object could be twice as bright as expect­ed,” Biv­er added.

Prince said anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to locate the comet in the sky will come on Feb­ru­ary 10, when it pass­es close to Mars.

The comet has spent most of its life “at least 2,500 times more dis­tant than the Earth is from the Sun”, Prince said.

Biv­er said the comet was believed to have come from the Oort Cloud, a the­o­rized vast sphere sur­round­ing the Solar Sys­tem that is home to mys­te­ri­ous icy objects.

The last time the comet passed Earth was dur­ing the Upper Pale­olith­ic peri­od, when Nean­derthals still roamed Earth.

Prince said the comet’s next vis­it to the inner Solar Sys­tem was expect­ed in anoth­er 50,000 years.

But Biv­er said there was a pos­si­bil­i­ty that after this vis­it the comet will be “per­ma­nent­ly eject­ed from the Solar System”.

Among those close­ly watch­ing will be the James Webb Space Tele­scope. How­ev­er, it will not take images, instead study­ing the comet’s com­po­si­tion, Biv­er said.

The clos­er the comet is to Earth, the eas­i­er it is for tele­scopes to mea­sure its com­po­si­tion “as the Sun boils off its out­er lay­ers”, Prince said.

This “rare vis­i­tor” will give “us infor­ma­tion about the inhab­i­tants of our Solar sys­tem well beyond the most dis­tant plan­ets”, he added.

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