A rare green comet discovered in 2022 is approaching Earth for the first time since the Neanderthal era. It will be closest to Earth on Feb. 1.
The comet is harmless, but it’s proximity will allow some viewers in favorable conditions to see it with the naked eye, while others may be able to catch a glimpse of the bright green tail with the aid of binoculars or a small telescope.
Paul Chodas, NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking expert, said “This one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to Earth’s orbit.”
The comet is rapidly approaching it’s closest point to Earth, according to Space.com. Given the official name of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the comet has a green color due to high carbon content surrounding its nucleus. This coloration also adds in visibility.
It’s expected to move between Earth and Mars on the night of February 1, remaining in potential view as it travels East through the sky before disappearing from sight.
The green comet has generated exceptional interest not only for its visibility, but also due to the likelihood that it won’t return so closely to Earth again in our lifetimes. The Virtual Telescope Project has been tracking the comet’s progress across the solar system through a live stream.
Most comets follow a path, but their trajectory isn’t easy to track or forecast. The loss of mass from a comet as it approaches the Sun as well as gravitational effects from planets can alter a comet’s course. These variables make scientists uncertain if we’ll be able to catch another glimpse of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) again in our lifetimes.
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Comets are balls of ice, gasses, rock and dust that formed in our solar system during the time scientists believe planets formed. Caught in the atmosphere, they circle the sun as our planet do, developing distinctive tails as they approach the sun due to evaporation. They can be as small as a few miles wide to tens of miles wide.
While it’s rare that a comet approaches Earth closely enough to be visible in our sky, NASA estimates that billions of comets are active in our solar system, with 3,743 known.
For the best viewing prospects, Thomas Prince, astronomer and director of the W.M. Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech, recommends finding an area with as little light pollution as possible. Visibility will be highest in the later hours of the evening.