A comet not seen in 50,000 years is coming. Here's what you need to know

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

Typically, during the course of a year about a dozen comets will come within the range of amateur telescopes. Most quietly come and go with little fanfare, but some are particularly noteworthy. 

During the upcoming weeks, a newly-discovered comet will be making a relatively close approach to the Earth. On Feb. 1, comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will pass to within 28 million miles (42 million km) of our planet, its first approach in 50,000 years. While this will no doubt entice many skywatchers to attempt to view the comet, whether or not one will actually be able to see it will depend on a variety of factors including location and light pollution from both natural and artificial sources.

But don't be dismayed! Even if you don't have the right gear or conditions to see comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the Virtual Telescope Project will be hosting a free livestream of the comet beginning 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: Comets: Facts about the 'dirty snowballs' of space

Discovery and history

On March 2, 2022 astronomers Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin using the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California, came across an object which they initially identified as an asteroid. It appeared very dim — it was estimated at magnitude +17.3 — or nearly 25,000 times fainter than stars at the threshold of detectability using just the human eye. Subsequent observations revealed that this star-like object possessed a very tightly condensed coma, indicating that it was in fact, a comet. It was the third such object discovered in the fifth half-month (A, B, C, D, E) of the year, so it received the designation C/2022 E3 (ZTF). At the time, the comet was situated 399 million miles (643 million km) from the sun, or just inside the orbit of the planet Jupiter. 

After enough observations were gathered to compute an orbit, astronomers determined C/2022 E3 to have an orbital period of roughly 50,000 years. Its last passage through the inner solar system apparently came during the Upper Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. If we take these calculations at face value, then the last people to look up and witness this visitor from the depths of the outer solar system, were likely very early Homo sapiens or Neanderthals. 

But this may very well be the last time that C/2022 E3 comes our way again. The latest orbital elements suggest that the comet is currently traveling on an orbital path with an eccentricity of 1.00027, or in other words, a parabolic orbit. Such an orbit is not closed, so after it sweeps around the sun C/2022 E3 will move back out into deep space, never to return again. So, this will be the comet's last time to "perform" for us. We know that comets are composed primarily of frozen gases that are heated as they approach the sun and made to glow by the sun's light. 

We call this cloud of gas the head or coma. 

As the gases warm and expand, particles of dust that were embedded in the comet's nucleus are also released into space. The solar wind blows this material out into an appendage we call the tail. To observers of antiquity, comets resembled a stellar head trailed by long hair, so they called comets, "hairy stars." 

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

Bright among "common" comets

Comets can be broken down into two basic categories: 

Bright comets — the kind that can excite those of us without binoculars or telescopes — appear on average perhaps two or three times every 15 to 20 years. The last such comet to do that was comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) in July 2020.

Then there are the common comets, of which most are only visible either with good binoculars or a telescope. The vast majority of comets fall into this category, but C/2022 E3 (ZTF) may end up ranking as exceptionally bright so far as most common comets go, since for a short while it may hover right at the cusp of naked-eye visibility (for those fortunate enough to be blessed with dark, non-light polluted night skies). 

For a comet to become readily visible without optical aid, it usually needs to approach closer to the sun than the Earth (92.95 million miles or 149.56 million km). But at perihelion (its closest approach to the sun) on January 12th, C/2022 E3 will get no closer than 103.4 million miles (166.4 million km). It will then begin to move away from the sun. Most comets, however, continue to remain quite active for a few weeks after passing the sun and this will be good so far as the comet's visibility for us is concerned.

In fact, during the few weeks following perihelion, the orbital geometry between the comet and the Earth has the distance between the two rapidly shrink. That distance will decrease by nearly 40 million miles (64 million km) between Jan. 12 and Feb. 1. As a result, the anticipated increase in the comet's brightness during that timeframe is expected to correspondingly increase, perhaps more than five-fold. 

Closest approach to Earth (perigee) will come at 1:11 p.m. EST on Feb. 1 at a distance of 28,390,710 miles (42,471,730 km). 

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

Where to find it and viewing prospects

Right now, C/2022 E3 is a predawn object, located in the constellation of Corona Borealis at a declination near +34°; it rises in the northeast shortly after midnight. On Jan. 12, the date of its closest approach to the sun, the comet will have shifted several degrees to the northwest. From then onward, its movement against the background stars will progressively increase westward as it approaches the Earth. 

The comet will move into northern Boötes on the 14th, and for most mid-northern latitude locations, it will become circumpolar (remaining above the horizon at all times) by the 20th. 

On the nights of Jan. 26 and Jan. 27, it can be conveniently found passing several degrees to the east of the bowl of the Little Dipper. On the evening of Jan. 27, it will be 3.5° to the upper right of orange Kochab, the brightest of the two outer stars in the bowl. On the evening of Feb. 1, when C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is passing closest to Earth, it will be within the boundaries of the vague and dim constellation of Camelopardalis. By Feb. 5, it will pass within a couple of degrees to the west of the brilliant yellow-white star Capella and the next night it will be within the triangle that makes up "The Kids" asterism in Auriga and will be located almost directly overhead at around 8 p.m. local standard time.

A number of different predictions have been made regarding the brightness of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) as it passes closest to Earth at the start of February. I believe, based on observations of C/2022 E3 through early January, that the forecasts of Japanese comet expert Seiichi Yoshida (opens in new tab) and Dutch comet expert Gideon Van Buitenen (opens in new tab), will be close to the truth, indicating a magnitude of no fainter than +7.5 during early January and peaking near +5 by the Feb. 1 perigee. 

Assuming that its brightening trend remains on target, the comet should become faintly visible with the unaided eye by the third week of January.

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)

Keep your expectations low

But as compelling as this all may sound; I now must temper any excitement by providing a very important disclaimer.

Later this month, many people with binoculars and small telescopes will no doubt attempt to follow the path of C/2022 E3 across the night sky. But actually seeing it will strongly depend on your observing site. From locations that are plagued by light pollution, I'll bet that sighting this comet is going to prove to be a rather difficult task. And even for those who are blessed with dark and starry skies, finding the comet could prove to be a bit of a challenge. This is because as the comet gets closer to Earth it will become rather large in angular size — perhaps appearing nearly as large as the moon by the start of February — as well as appearing rather diffuse. 

Indeed, many with little observing experience will sharply question the predictions for a fifth or sixth magnitude object. But remember, you're not looking for a sharp star-like object, but rather something which is spreading its light out over a comparatively large area.

In fact, under a completely dark sky, free of light pollution, perhaps the best instruments for locating the comet will be your own two eyes, especially if you use averted vision.

Celestial deception!

Recent photographs have shown the comet displaying a distinct greenish color and sprouting two tails, one of which appears impressively long. Sadly, such long-exposure images tend to be quite deceptive. For one thing they bring out colors that are not readily evident to the eye. As to why the comet's head appears green is likely due to a molecule made from two carbon atoms bonded together, called dicarbon. This unusual chemical process is confined chiefly around the comet's head, not its tail. 

Comets generally throw off two types of tails; tails composed primarily of gas, and tails composed primarily of dust. Dust tails are far brighter and more spectacular to the eye than gas tails, because dust is a very effective reflector of sunlight. The most spectacular comets are dusty and can produce long, bright tails making them awesome and impressive celestial spectacles. 

Gas tails on the other hand appear much fainter and glow with a bluish hue. The gas is activated by the ultraviolet rays of the sun, making the tail glow in much the same way that black light causes phosphorescent paint to light up. 

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

Unfortunately, gas tails produced by most comets, appear long, stringy thin, and quite faint; impressive in photographs but underwhelming visually. And that's what we're currently seeing with C/2022 E3. The comet is also shedding a brighter dust tail, but at this moment it's rather short and stubby. 

So, most who ultimately locate C/2022 E3 in their binoculars or telescopes will, I believe, typically describe it as a nearly circular cloud, appearing noticeably brighter and more condensed near the center. Some might also detect its dust tail appearing as a bit of an elongation of the comet's coma, but hardly the kind of tail or appendage exhibited by other larger and brighter comets. 

That darn moon!

There is one other factor that will affect whatever views you might get of the comet and that will be the moon. 

From now until about Jan. 15, its bright light will hinder your views of the comet in the early morning sky, although thereafter it will slim down to a waning crescent and become progressively less of a hindrance. It will arrive at new phase on Jan. 21. A few days later it will reappear in the western evening sky as just a thin crescent, but by Jan. 28, it will again be lighting up the sky during the first part of the night and seriously interfering with observations of the comet — and just when it is attaining its peak brightness. The moon will set later in the night, leaving the sky dark during the predawn hours, but as it approaches full phase on Feb. 5, the amount of time between moonset and the first light of dawn will get noticeably shorter.

Read more: What is the moon phase today? Lunar phases 2023

After full moon, dark sky opportunities open up in the evening sky. From mid-northern latitudes on Feb. 7, there will be about a half-hour window of darkness between the end of evening twilight and moonrise. Three nights later, C/2022 E3 will be visible from the end of evening twilight until about 11 p.m. without any lunar interference. At nightfall it will sit less than 2° to the upper left of bright Mars and will stand 75° above the south-southeast horizon, and probably hover at around +6.5 magnitude.

If you want to take a look at C/2022 E3 ZTF and don't have everything you need, 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.  

Happy comet hunting!

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.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium (opens in new tab). He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine (opens in new tab), the Farmers' Almanac (opens in new tab) and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Joe Rao
Skywatching Columnist

Joe Rao is Space.com's skywatching columnist, as well as a veteran meteorologist and eclipse chaser who also serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Joe is an 8-time Emmy-nominated meteorologist who served the Putnam Valley region of New York for over 21 years. You can find him on Twitter and YouTube tracking lunar and solar eclipses, meteor showers and more. To find out Joe's latest project, visit him on Twitter.