Watch a comet make its closest approach in 50,000 years online next week

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF photographed from Rome, Italy on Sept. 12, 2022.
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF photographed from Rome, Italy on Sept. 12, 2022. (Image credit: Gianluca Masi)

A comet discovered just last year will make its closest approach to the sun next week, offering an excellent opportunity to view it.

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF was discovered in March 2022 by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology's Zwicky Transient Facility when it was 397 million miles (640 million kilometers) from the sun. Astronomers initially believed C/2022 E3 ZTF to be an asteroid, but its coma, the cloud of ice and dust surrounding its nucleus, was observed soon after. By December 2022, the comet had developed a long tail as it was warmed by the sun.

C/2022 E3 ZTF will reach perihelion, or its closest distance to the sun, on Jan. 12. If it continues to brighten as much as it has during observations so far, the comet may be visible with the naked eye. To share a gorgeous view of the comet at perihelion with anyone interested, the Virtual Telescope Project is hosting a free livestream of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF starting at 11:00 p.m. EST on Jan. 12 (0400 GMT on Jan. 13). You can watch the live webcast courtesy of the project's website (opens in new tab) or on its YouTube channel (opens in new tab).

Related: Possible naked-eye comet will visit Earth for 1st time since Neanderthals in 2023

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

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says (opens in new tab) that skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere should be able to spot the comet in dark skies when there is little moonlight, such as when the new moon rises on Jan. 21. 

The comet currently has a greenish coma and a long but faint tail. C/2022 E3 ZTF was quite dim when it was first discovered, with a magnitude of 17.3, but it's expected to reach magnitude 6, making it just bright enough to view with the naked eye under the right conditions. (On the magnitude scale astronomers use, smaller numbers denote brighter objects.) 

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)

On Jan. 12, the comet will zoom through the solar system at a distance of 100 million miles (160 million km) from the sun; later, on Feb. 2, the comet will make its closest approach to Earth, or perigee, coming within 26 million miles (42 million km) of our planet. 

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF hasn't approached the sun this closely for around 50,00 years, meaning the last time it was so visible in our night skies was the Upper Paleolithic period. It's possible that some early humans were able to see the comet during this time, or even some of the last Neanderthals. 

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF seen on Dec. 22, 2022. (Image credit: Edu INAF/Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to take a look at C/2022 E3 ZTF and don't have the right gear, be sure to peruse our guides for the best binoculars and the best telescopes to view the comet or anything else in the sky. For capturing the best comet images you can, we have recommendations for the best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography.  

Editor's Note: If you photograph 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.

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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. 

  • billslugg
    Here we go again. The headline reads "Once in 50,000 year comet may be visible to the naked eye". This will be misinterpreted as "Brightest comet in 50,000 years", will be barely visible and the general public will be disappointed yet again. Shades of Kahoutek.
    Reply