The new year has only just begun, but the cosmos is already set to make history in 2023. The comet, discovered less than a year ago, has traveled billions of miles from its supposed origin at the edge of our solar system and will be visible in just an hour or so in what may be its only recorded appearance.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was first observed in March 2022 as it passed through the orbit of Jupiter. According to NASA, it is a long-period comet that likely originated in the Oort Cloud, the outermost region of Earth’s solar system, which is “like a huge, thick-walled bubble made of icy bits of space debris” that may even be larger than mountains. The inner edge of this region is believed to be between 2,000 and 5,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun – 186 billion to 465 billion miles.
This means that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) has made a rare, one-of-a-kind journey to be close to Earth.
“Most known long-period comets have only been seen once in recorded history because their orbital periods are so, well, longsays NASA. “Countless more unknown long-period comets have never been seen by human eyes. Some have such long orbits that the last time they passed through the inner solar system, our species did not yet exist.”
One recent comet of this type, C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, previously visited the inner solar system and made a close approach to Mars in 2014, but it won’t return for about 740,000 years, according to the space agency.
Jessica Lee, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Newsweek that comet E3 could be in a similar situation.
“We don’t yet have an estimate of how far it will go from Earth – estimates vary – but if it does come back it won’t be for at least 50,000 years,” she said. “…some predictions suggest that the orbit of this comet is so eccentric that it is no longer in orbit – so it will not return at all and will just keep moving.”
Now the recently discovered comet E3, which was seen with a bright greenish coma and a “short, broad” dust tail, will make its closest approach to the sun on January 12. It will be closest to Earth on February 2. .
Astrophotographer Dan Bartlett managed to capture an image of the comet in December from his backyard in California. He said he was able to see the “intricate tail structure” in the comet’s plasma tail and “conditions are improving.”
If all goes well and the comet maintains its current brightness trend, NASA said it would be easily spotted with binoculars. It is also possible that it will be visible to the naked eye away from city lights. Those in the northern hemisphere will be able to see the comet in the morning, while those in the southern hemisphere will be able to see it in early February, NASA said.
“This comet is not expected to be the spectacle that camet NEOWISE was in 2020,” the agency added. “But it’s still an amazing opportunity to make personal contact with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system.”
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