The time is now: The green comet is so close to Earth this Wednesday that it’s easy to see with binoculars. At a distance of 42 million kilometers – roughly a third of the distance between Earth and the Sun – comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will reach its closest point to Earth on February 1 in its orbit through our solar system.
If you look north around midnight on a clear day, you can spot the comet high in the sky between the constellations Dipper and Dipper above the Pole Star (which forms Dipper’s “handle”). You can use a mobile app like “Stellarium” to help you find constellations. Or you can use sitemaps, such as des Astronomy House.
However, with the naked eye, you will have no chance of finding the comet, because the rising moon is now very bright again. Astrophysicist Axel Schöpp from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) explains that since it will continue to get brighter over the coming days and will be visible in the sky for longer and longer in the morning hours, observation will become increasingly difficult at the beginning of February.
As the moon’s light wanes after the full moon on February 5, the comet itself will also wane as it moves farther from the sun. And then it will not be visible all night. Schop’s conclusion: See now and not without binoculars!
And his tips: the moon sets at 6.28am on February 2nd: so early risers can get lucky before moonset and before sunrise (7.47am) with clear skies. However, the moon sets about an hour later each day: “The ‘window of opportunity’ gets smaller and disappears very quickly.”
The comet is about 1 kilometer in size and has a shimmering green ‘coma’ that extends over about 50,000 kilometres. This is called its solar-reflecting particle envelope. The green color is due to the gas being released from heating near the sun.
See now and not without binoculars!
Axel Schaub, Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics, Potsdam
Anyone who wants to see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) should look it up now. In 50,000 years it could fly over the Earth again. But it remains to be seen if he will ever return.
Astronomers aren’t sure if the comet might not leave our solar system forever after its current visit.
Comets come from the extreme, icy edge of the solar system. They are celestial bodies that have not been “exhausted” in the formation of planets. It consists of dust grains, organic particles and frozen material that can become gaseous when approaching the sun, which then leads to the formation of the typical tail.
The high volatile content distinguishes it from asteroids. Due to the gravitational influence of other celestial bodies or collisions, they are sometimes pushed out of their original orbit and then approach the Sun or the Earth.
What are the risks
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered in March of last year by the Zwicky Transit Facility (ZTF), a wide-field astronomical survey of the sky on the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California as it passed by Jupiter.
The comet is believed to have originated in the Oort Cloud, which surrounds the solar system and is home to many unknown icy bodies. At one kilometer in diameter, it’s much smaller than the five-kilometer comet “NEWICE” that clearly passed Earth in March 2020. The 60-kilometre giant Hale-Bopp seen in 1997 was much larger. In the event of a collision with Earth, it would have had the power to wipe out life on Earth.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be at least closer to Earth than its predecessors. But this time, the ice comet won’t come dangerously close to Earth, Schoppe explained. The distance of 42 million km at the beginning of February is really not tight.
For example, the small asteroid 2011 ES4 flew past our planet two and a half years ago at a distance of only 122,000 km, which is a third of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. A smaller asteroid reached a distance of 3,600 kilometers just a few days ago.
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