A comet that hasn’t been seen in 50,000 years is about to streak past Earth. Here’s when to look up: ScienceAlert

A newly discovered comet could be visible to the naked eye as it shoots past Earth and the Sun in the coming weeks for the first time in 50,000 years, astronomers have said.

The comet is called C/2022 E3 (ZTF) after the Zwicky Transient Facility, which first saw it pass Jupiter last March.

After leaving the icy parts of our solar system, it will come closest to the Sun on January 12 and pass closest to Earth on February 1.

It will be easy to spot with good binoculars and probably also with the naked eye, provided the sky is not too lit by city lights or the moon.

The comet “will be brightest when it is closest to Earth,” Thomas Prince, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology who works at the Zwicky Transient Facility, told AFP.

Made of ice and dust and emitting a greenish aura, the comet is estimated to be about one kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter, said Nicolas Biver, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory.

That makes it significantly smaller than NEOWISE, the last comet visible to the naked eye, which passed Earth in March 2020, and Hale–Bopp, which swept past in 1997 with a potentially life-ending diameter of about 60 kilometers.

But the newest visit will come closer to Earth, which “may make up for the fact that it’s not very big,” Biver said.

While the comet will be brightest when it passes Earth in early February, a full moon may make it difficult to spot.

For the northern hemisphere, Biver suggested the last week of January, when the comet passes between the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.

The new moon on the weekend of January 21-22 provides a good chance for stargazers, he said.

“We could also get a nice surprise, and the object could be twice as bright as expected,” Biver added.

Prince said another opportunity to locate the comet in the sky will come on February 10, when it passes close to Mars.

‘Rare Visitor’

The comet has spent most of its life “at least 2,500 times further away than the Earth is from the Sun”, Prince said.

Biver said the comet was thought to have come from the Oort cloud, a theorized vast sphere surrounding the solar system that is home to mysterious icy objects.

The last time the comet passed Earth was during the Upper Paleolithic period, when Neanderthals still roamed the earth.

Prince said the comet’s next visit to the inner solar system was expected in another 50,000 years.

But Biver said there was a possibility that after this visit the comet will be “permanently ejected from the solar system”.

Among those watching closely will be the James Webb Space Telescope. However, it will not take pictures, instead studying the comet’s composition, Biver said.

The closer the comet is to Earth, the easier it is for telescopes to measure its composition “as the sun boils off the outer layers,” Prince said.

This “rare visitor” will provide “us with information about the inhabitants of our solar system far beyond the most distant planets,” he added.

© Agence France-Presse

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