A rare comet is approaching its closest point to Earth in 50,000 years

An icy visitor from the distant solar system passes through our region.

The long-period comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) can be seen with a medium-sized telescope right now, and if it continues to brighten, it should be seen easily in binoculars and perhaps with the naked eye in sufficiently dark skies.

This comet was discovered on March 2, 2022 at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Zwicky Transit Facilitya 48-inch telescope and camera system designed to scan the entire sky for events such as collisions of stars and moving objects such as asteroids and comets.

You may remember Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) that appeared in the pre-dawn hours in December 2021, or Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in July 2020 that survived its close encounter with the Sun long enough to provide some evening viewing as well.

The C/2022 E3 bid (ZTF) is expected to fall somewhere in between. Not as bright as Newy’s but easier to see than Leonard’s.

The challenge with observing comets is that they are most visible when they are closest to the sun as the evaporating ice pushes out the dust creating a tail that is illuminated by the sun. When objects in the sky are closest to the sun, they are also low on the horizon near sunrise, causing them to get lost in the sun’s glare.

This is the only thing the ZTF comet does. Its journey through the solar system takes it along a trajectory much higher in our sky, bringing it above the horizon during the darkest hours of the early morning.

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Viewing tips

To see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) look to the northeast in the hours before sunrise. Unlike previous comets, this comet currently has a very compact comma, a glowing cloud of gas immediately around the comet, and a short, thin tail.

The comet will be just over halfway between the horizon and direct (Zenith). Look between the constellations Corona Borealis and Hercules.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) locations through January 2023

The comet will move north throughout the month.

As it reaches its closest point to the Sun on January 12, it will be about halfway between Hercules’ left hand and the C-shaped constellation Corona Borealis. Over the next week, the comet will move between Hercules and hopefully get brighter the closer it gets.

The best time might be January 26th when the comet appears over Ursa Major though February 2nd when Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is closest to Earth.

The comet has a magnitude of 7.6 and hopefully has a magnitude of 6, more than four times as bright.

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