Deep in the Stone Age, when Neanderthals still lived alongside Homo sapiens, our ancestors might have been shocked by a green light in the night sky. Now this light—C/2022 E3 (ZTF) (more colloquially, the Green Comet)-is back.
The Green Comet’s highly elliptical orbit means that it will take a long time for it to pass past Earth again – around 50,000 years, to be precise. And that is if it repeats its 50,000 year stay, which it may not.
Astronomers discovered the comet in March 2022 using the Samuel Oschin robotic telescope at the Zwicky Transient Facility. It passed perihelion (when it is closest to the Sun) on January 12.
Observers in the United States can see the comet until early Februarypotentially with the naked eye if you are in a dark vision area, but your chances will be better using binoculars or a telescope. According to NASA, the best time to see the comet is before dawn.
The comet will make its closest approach to our planet on February 2. The closest approach will take it about 0.29 AU (about 27 million miles) from Earth, according to EarthSky.
Currently, the comet is heading towards the constellation Bootes and near Hercules, EarthSky Reports. (If you have trouble finding the position of the comet, you can consult a handy interactive sky map.) The comet the location makes it difficult to see for observers from the southern hemisphere. From its current location in the night sky, its projected path traces it past Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper), passing through Camelopardis at its closest approach.
Comets shine due to a combination of their chemical makeup and sunlight. Comets that pass near the Sun are illuminated and heated by its energy, causing molecules on their surface to evaporate and fluoresce. Comet heads glow green when they contain cyanogen or diatomic carbon, according to NASA.
The green comet can become as bright as magnitude 5 when it is closest to Earth, according to EarthSky. The lower the number, the brighter the object. Full moon the apparent magnitude is about -11, and the faintest objects seen by the Hubble Space Telescope have a magnitude of about 30, according to Brittanica. The darkest stars that our naked eye can see have a magnitude of about 6.
Although the comet can reach a brightness of magnitude 5, it it will probably help to use a pair of binoculars or a telescope if you have trouble spotting the object on a clear night.
The incoming space rock isn’t the only recent green comet; in 2018, comet 46P/Wirtanen was bright enough for observers to see with the naked eye, and in 2021Comet Leonard glowed green as the ball of ice made its cosmic trajectory.
So keep your eyes peeled for the clear nights ahead. If you see something with a faint green glow, it’s probably our new cosmic visitor.
More: The mega comet arriving from the Oort cloud is 85 miles wide
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