Saturday, February 4, 2023

So You Might See the Green Comet That Will Pass Earth in Late January

  • Astronomers recently discovered a green comet approaching Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.
  • Comet ZTF may never return, so we may be the last humans to see it.
  • Here’s how, where and when to watch the comet in late January and early February.
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We may be the last humans to see the green comet hurtling past Earth from the outer reaches of the solar system in late January and early February.

C/2022 E3 (ZTF) or Comet ZTF for short—the name astronomers gave this space snowball after it was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility in March—hasn’t been in our cosmic neighborhood since the last ice age.

The researchers calculated that the icy ball of gas, dust and rock orbits the Sun approximately every 50,000 years. This means that Neanderthals were still walking the earth and humans were first out of Africa when the comet last circled.

Without binoculars and telescopes, those ancient people might not have seen the comet at all. And may not get a chance to see again.

Jessica Lee, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Newsweek, “Some predictions suggest that the orbit of this comet is so eccentric that it’s no longer in orbit, so it won’t come back at all and just keep going.”

So it might be worth the effort to discover Comet ZTF and be one of the few humans to see it up close. Here’s what you need to know to maximize your chances.

when to see the green comet

Man Staring Through Binoculars
You may need a small telescope to see the ZTF comet, but binoculars may be sufficient. Brian Allen/Getty Images

According to NASA, the green comet should be visible in the Northern Hemisphere just before sunrise in late January.

A completely shadowed new moon may provide dark skies ideal for viewing the comet on January 21st.

Then, in early February the comet will be visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Comet ZTF will pass within a radius of about 41 million kilometers of the Earth on February 2, which will be its closest. It’s about 109 times the average distance to the Moon, but the comet is burning so brightly that it can still be seen in the night sky.

The comet is expected to be brightest on January 31 and February 1, although the moon will be bright and the comet “faint an object to be seen without optical aids in very light and very dark sky” constellations, according to Adler.

How to find the green comet

At first, a telescope may be needed to see the ZTF comet, but as it gets closer to Earth, viewers may be able to see it with binoculars or even the naked eye.

“Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but if it continues on its current bright trend, it will be easy to spot with binoculars, and may be visible to the naked eye,” NASA wrote in an update on December 29.

For the best viewing, choose a cloudless night and away from city lights, toward the darkest sky possible. When the Moon is dark, or at least when it is below the horizon, the sky will be even darker.

If you’re near an urban area, you may also want to bring binoculars or a telescope in case the light obscures the comet from the naked eye.

Where to Look in the Night Sky for the ZTF Comet

Look at the right stars to spot the green comet. According to, the comet is currently visible passing through the constellation of Bootes, near its boundary with Hercules. It is headed toward the North Star Polaris and will be visible in the vicinity of the star on January 30. It will be visible earlier in the evening as it approaches Polaris.

“It will probably be different from other stars because it will appear a little fuzzy compared to other stars,” Thomas Prince, director of the WM Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech, told Fox Weather.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the comet will be about 1.5 degrees from Mars on February 10, according to Prince. It’s about the width of your little finger when you hold it at arm’s length. If you can see Mars shining brightly in the sky, look for comets around it.

EarthSky publishes maps to help locate reference objects (Hercules, Polaris and Mars) in the night sky.

Why is a comet green?

According to NASA the comet has a “greenish coma, a short, broad dust tail, and a long, wispy ion tail”.

Many comets glow green. Laboratory research has linked this aura to a reactive molecule called dicarbon, which emits green light when dissociated by sunlight.

Dicarbon is common in comets, but not usually found in their tails.

This is why the coma, the haze around the ball of frozen gas, dust and rock at the comet’s center, glows green, while the tail remains white.

now read: These are the dangers astronauts face in space that put their health at risk

Read also: 10 facts about space that will leave you speechless

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