Bright green comet a rare 'messenger from the outer reaches of our solar system,' astronomers say

A photo of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF taken on Dec. 26, 2022 in Payson, Arizona by Chris Schur.
A photo of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF taken on Dec. 26, 2022 in Payson, Arizona by Chris Schur. (Image credit: Chris Schur)

A comet not seen from Earth in tens of thousands of years is visible in the skies this month. 

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered on March 2, 2022 by astronomers Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin using the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in California. At the time, the comet was just inside the orbit of Jupiter some 399 million miles (643 million km) from the sun. Fast forward to today, and the comet has already made its closest approach to the sun and in a few weeks will make its closest approach to the Earth on Feb. 1.

Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) co-principal investigator Tom Prince and University of Maryland's Michael Kelley, the facility's comet expert, told Space.com that the comet was an exciting discovery even for astronomers who spend their careers hunting for such objects. "Having discovered the object initially, we were very excited to see that it was, indeed, a comet and that it was likely to be seen as a naked-eye object as it came nearer to the Earth," Prince said. "The solar system is a fascinating place and is so much more than just the sun and the planets."

Related: Amazing photos of gorgeously green Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)

TOP TELESCOPE PICK:

A Celestron telescope on a white background

(Image credit: Celestron)

Looking for a telescope to see comet C/2022 E3 ZTF? We recommend the Celestron Astro Fi 102 (opens in new tab) as the top pick in our best beginner's telescope guide

When the comet was initially discovered, astronomers weren't sure about its identity, Prince told Space.com in an interview.

"When we first discovered the object, we did not know whether it was an asteroid or a comet, Prince said. "As its orbit was better defined, the likelihood that it was a 'long period' comet increased and evidence of a tail started to be seen."

"The discovery was made by looking for objects undergoing motion in five images taken about three-and-a-half minutes apart," Prince said. "In each successive image, the object moved slightly relative to the background stars. Sear software written by Frank Masci of Caltech was used to find moving objects in ZTF data. Bryce Bolin used the software while he was at Caltech and reported the moving object to the Minor Planet Center."

Ultimately, it was the orbit of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) that allowed researchers to conclusively identify it as a comet. "At the time it was reported, March 2, 2022, it was not known that the object was a comet, only that it was a moving object in the solar system," Prince said. "After the object was reported to the Minor Planet Center, many other observatories made measurements allowing the orbit of the object to be better defined, and showing that it was coming in from the outer solar system." Prince added that the large field of view the Zwicky Transient Facility has allows it to survey the entire visible sky every two nights, making it well-suited for NASA-funded searches for comets and asteroids

Kelley added that the orbit of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) offers some clues to its origins. "The orbit indicates it comes from the edge of our solar system, a distant reservoir of comets we call the Oort cloud," Kelley told Space.com. "The Oort cloud is big. So large that it surrounds all the other objects in our solar system (planets, asteroids, etc.), and is likely about a light-year across."

Read more: Oort Cloud: The Outer Solar System's Icy Shell

A NASA image showing the path of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF across the January sky for the Northern Hemisphere. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While the Zwicky Transient Facility discovers a few comets each year, Kelley said the discovery of a bright comet that can be seen with the naked eye is always exciting. "Finding bright comets like ZTF is special to cometary astronomers. Bright comets give us the best opportunities to determine how comets formed and how they have changed since then."

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF photographed on Nov. 26, 2022 from Yellow Springs, Ohio. (Image credit: John Chumack/GalacticImages.com)

Both researchers told Space.com that they look forward to seeing the public's reaction to this rare comet and the photos from amateur astronomers it will produce. "Enjoy them and try to see it with a telescope or binoculars if possible," Kelley said. "It may not look as good as the photos, but seeing it with your own eyes is a unique experience."

"Comets such as this are messengers from the outermost reaches of our solar system, taking tens of thousands of years to make their way into our vicinity," Prince added. "We hope that the public will be as excited as we are about the visit of this comet to the inner solar system."

Hoping to observe C/2022 E3 (ZTF)? Our guides on the best telescopes and best binoculars can help. You can also check out our guides on how to photograph the moon, as well our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography to get started.

Editor's Note: If you snap the comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), and would like to share it with Space.com’s readers, send your photo(s), comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.

Follow Brett on Twitter at @bretttingley (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).  

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children. 

  • rod
    "Astronomers involved with the discovery of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) are just as excited about its discovery as the public is."

    *Excited public* viewing this comet? May be or perhaps not that excited too :)

    I did view again this morning (15-Jan-2023).

    Observed 0345-0415 EST. Last Quarter Moon 15-Jan-2023 0210 UT. The lovely Last Quarter Moon visible in Virgo when I used 10x50 binoculars and looked at the comet this morning, C/2022 E3 ZTF. Distinct fuzzy with hint of tail. Theskylive.com reports apparent magnitude +6.90. Stellarium 1.2 shows 6.97, and Starry Night Pro Plus 8 shows 6.97. Easy to locate using a trio of stars. 4 Herculis, Chi Herculis, and 2 Herculis. These were 4.59 to 5.71 magnitude. The other trio were Phi Bootis, Nu2 Bootis, and Nu1 Bootis. They were about 4.96 to 5.25 magnitude stars. C/2022 E3 ZTF framed by these stars. About 2-degrees angular separation from 4 Herculis and Phi Bootis star too. Clear skies, temperature -3C, winds 360/12 knots. I took a short look this morning, no telescope views. This is my 4th observation of C/2022 E3 ZTF that began on 24-Dec-2022 with apparent magnitude near 8.59.
    Reply