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Earth Overflight: ‘Neanderthal Comet’ Coming Soon

Earth Overflight: ‘Neanderthal Comet’ Coming Soon

Status: 01/29/2023 1:37 PM

Recently, Neanderthals were able to admire it: comet C / 2022 E3 (ZTF) flies across the Earth again after 50,000 years. If you are lucky, you can see it with the naked eye in the coming days.

Written by Uwe Gradwohl, Leila Boucheligua, SWR

Comet C / 2022 E3 (ZTF), also known as the “Neanderthal comet”, last passed through the inner region of our solar system about 50,000 years ago. It is likely that the Neanderthals who were still alive at that time also saw it in the skies of the Ice Age. Now it is approaching Earth again and will be visible with simple binoculars – perhaps even with the naked eye.

This is how you can observe the comet

The best chances of seeing the comet are in the last week of January and early February – provided the weather and light conditions are right. Then, on February 5, the full moon will overtake the faint comet.

To see the comet, look north. There you can see the two planets Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia is also called Celestial W because its five very prominent stars are arranged like the letter “W”. The comet can be seen between the Big Dipper and cyan W.

Why is Comet C/2022 E3 called (ZTF)?

Comets were named after their discoverers. Since many tail stars have been discovered today, they are now christened with a coded name. The current comet is called C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
The letter C indicates the type of comet. In this case, he is a long term culprit. 2022 is the year of discovery. The next E indicates the half of the month in which the comet was discovered. The two halves of January are A and B, C and D for February, so E3 represents the first half of March, when the comet was the third to be spotted.
The abbreviation ZTF at the end is an abbreviation for the name of the research program Zwicky Transit Facility At the Palomar Observatory in the USA, which continuously and systematically scans the sky, this comet was found among many others.

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What does a comet look like in the sky?

In many images, the comet can be seen with a long tail and a greenish coma, which is a diffuse cloud of gas and dust around the comet’s nucleus. However, such images are created by long exposures, which can last from 30 seconds to over an hour.

To the human eye, the comet looks more like a blurred blob and is almost indistinguishable from other stars at a quick glance. In the bright night sky over a city or near a settlement, the comet is difficult to see due to increased light pollution. Farther from the leveling lights, the comet’s green color can be seen — and possibly also its fluffy tail. Even simple binoculars can help when searching for comets.

25,000 years of flight time

The pieces of ice and dust fly around the sun in a very elongated orbit. Data on the orbital position of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) collected over the past few months made it possible to calculate when the comet last flew close to Earth and when it will happen again. It takes 50,000 years to complete one orbit around the sun. The 25,000-year flight time from “too far” to the Sun has been cut nearly in half.

The term “very distant” means a region where remnants of the time of the solar system’s formation are still circling in space, more precisely large chunks of frozen gas and dust. As they approach the sun, the gas melts and evaporates, and the sun’s rays cause the gas molecules to glow.

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last chance

The green color of the gaseous envelope around C/2022 E3’s core (ZTF) is thought to be due to dicarbon, a molecule made up of two carbon atoms. The green color can only be seen near the comet’s nucleus because the dicarbon decays too quickly and thus does not reach the region where the tail is formed. The comet’s tail itself appears pale and white, with only subtle colors visible in long exposure images.

If you miss the comet, for example due to poor visibility, you will most likely not have the opportunity to see it in the sky. Next time C / 2022 E3 (ZTF) will fly over Earth again in 50,000 years. However, his return is not entirely certain, and it may be that after this visit he will leave our solar system forever. Experts remain divided on the future fate of C/2022 E3 (ZTF).