How to see the green comet zoom our way for the first time in 50,000 years
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A comet streaks our way after 50,000 years.
The dirty snowball was last visited in Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth on Wednesday before speeding away again, and is unlikely to return in millions of years.
So look up, contrary to the title of the killer comet movie “Don’t Look Up”.
Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet is already visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly with the naked eye in the darkest reaches of the northern hemisphere.
It is expected to brighten as it gets closer and rises above the horizon until the end of January, best seen in the early morning hours. By February 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark. Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
While there have been a lot of comets gracing the sky over the past year, “this one probably looks a little bigger and therefore a little brighter and is getting a little closer to Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid tracking guru, Paul Chodas. .
Green from all the carbon in the cloud of gas, or coma, that surrounds the core, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide-angle camera from Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.
That explains the official, cumbersome name: Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). The core is thought to be about a mile across, with its tails stretching for millions of miles (kilometers).
The comet is not expected to be as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.
But “it will be bright because of the close passage through Earth … allowing scientists to do more experiments and the public to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.
Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations that place the comet’s last revolution through the solar system’s planetary environment at 50,000 years ago.
But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When it returns, however, is more difficult to judge.
Each time the comet skims past the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the ice ball’s path a tiny bit, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: Jets of dust and gas stream from the comet as it warms up near the sun.
“We don’t know exactly how much they’re pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.
The comet — a time capsule of the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — emerged from what’s known as the Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto. This frozen haven for comets is believed to extend more than a quarter of the way to the next star.
Although comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we’re not sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it is booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.
Don’t worry if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of them,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, maybe brighter, maybe closer.”
The Associated Press Health and Science division is supported by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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