Approximately a dozen of comets will typically pass within the amateur telescope range each year. Most quietly arrive and depart without much fanfare, but some stand out in particular.
A recently found comet will be passing rather close to the Earth in the following weeks. The comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will make its closest approach to Earth in 50,000 years on February 1 as it passes by within 28 million miles (42 million kilometers) of our planet. The likelihood that one will actually be able to see the comet depends on a number of circumstances, such as location and pollution from both natural and manmade sources. Nevertheless, this will undoubtedly inspire many stargazers to attempt to view the comet.
But do not despair! even if you don’t have the necessary equipment or viewing circumstances. The Virtual Telescope Project will be providing a free broadcast of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) starting at 11:00 p.m. EST on January 12 (0400 GMT on Jan. 13). One can view the live broadcast on the project’s website or YouTube channel.
History and discovery
- By using Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California, astronomers Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin discovered an object on March 2, 2022, that they initially mistook for an asteroid. It was estimated to be magnitude +17.3, or approximately 25,000 times duller than stars at the borderline of detection with the unaided eye, and it had an extremely faint appearance. Later studies showed that this star-like object actually had a comet’s coma, which was very tightly compressed. It was given the identification C/2022 E3 since it was the 3rd such object detected in the fifth half-month of the year (A, B, C, D, and E) (ZTF). The comet was 399 million miles away at the time (643 million km)
Brightest among common comets
- A comet often needs to approach the sun more closely than Earth does in order to become easily visible without the use of optics (92.95 million miles or 149.56 million km). However, C/2022 E3 won’t approach the sun any closer than 103.4 million miles on January 12 during perihelion (its closest approach) (166.4 million km). Then it will start to turn away from the sun. However, most comets continue to be highly active for a few weeks after crossing the sun, which is good news for our ability to see the comet.
- In fact, the orbital geometry between both the comet and the Earth causes the distance between the two to rapidly decrease over the few weeks after perihelion.
- Between Jan. 12 and Feb. 1, that distance will shrink by roughly 40 million miles (64 million kilometers). As a result, it is estimated that the comet’s brightness will rise throughout that time, maybe by a factor of more than five.
- The object will make its closest approach to Earth (perigee) on February 1 at 1:11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (42,471,730 km).
Where to look for it and potential viewing prospects
- Currently rising in the northeast just after midnight, C/2022 E3 is a predawn object in the Corona Borealis constellation. Its declination is close to +34°. The comet will have moved many degrees to the northwest by Jan. 12, the day of its closest encounter to the sun. It will continue to move against the background stars, gradually moving westward as it gets closer to Earth.
- On the 14th, the comet will enter northern Boötes, and by the 20th, it will turn circumpolar (trying to remain just above the horizon at all times) for most mid-northern latitude sites.
- It is conveniently located crossing several degrees to the east of the Little Dipper’s bowl on the nights of January 26 and 27. It will be 3.5° to the top right of orange Kochab, the brightest of the 2 outer stars in the bowl, on the evening of January 27. C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be located inside the borders of the hazy and faint constellation of Camelopardalis on the evening of February 1 when it will be passing closest to Earth. On February 5, it will pass close to the magnificent yellow-white star Capella, to the west of it, and the following night, it will be inside the triangle that composes “The Kids” asterism in Auriga and it will be nearly overhead at about 8 p.m. local standard time.
How bright will it get?
- How bright will it get? Based on C/2022 E3 observations through early January, We think the predictions of Dutch comet expert Gideon Van Buitenen and Japanese comet expert Seiichi Yoshida will be fairly accurate, with a magnitude of no dimmer than +7.5 all through early Jan & peaking near +5 by the Feb. 1 perigee.
- By the third week of January, the comet should start to become faintly visible to the unassisted eye, assuming that its brightening tendency continues on course.
The last of its kind!
- We are aware that comets are essentially made up of frozen gasses, which are warmed as they get closer to the sun and made to glow by its light.
- According to the most recent orbital elements, the comet is currently following an orbital route with an eccentricity of 1.00027, or a parabolic orbit. Since such an orbit is not sealed, C/2022 E3 will go back out into outer space after completing one orbit of the sun and will never come back. Therefore, this will be the comet’s final appearance for us.