We have a 50,000 year old comet we can NOW see in our skies.
The CIRCUMPOLAR COMET ZTF (C/2022 E3) IS HERE!
It will be easiest to see Jan 27 and 28.
Dazzling green comet! First appearance in 50,000 years! Watch it streak across the sky! Based on recent headlines you’d think Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) was the greatest astronomical event of modern times. While it’s not all that, this Oort Cloud refugee is already visible in binoculars and a pretty sight in modest telescopes. Observers with dark, moonless skies may even spot the comet with the naked eye (dimly) as it sails between the the Big and Little Dippers later this month. Thanks to clouds and moonlight I last saw it in late December at 8th magnitude in Corona Borealis.
Current visual magnitude estimates put Comet ZTF at between magnitude 6.5 and 7.0. Expect it to peak around magnitude 5.5 at the end of January into early February. Not to throw shade, but Jose Pablo Navarro, amateur astronomer and administrator of the Facebook group Comet Asteroid Meteor Watch, examined 2,509 visual and CCD observations of the comet from the Minor Planet Center database. His analysis indicates a recent slowdown in the comet’s rate of brightening, with a peak brightness closer to 6.0 magnitude. Time will tell.
Comet ZTF E3 animationGas leaving the comet streams down its ion tail in this 12-image animation made on January 14, 2023, from 2:20 to 3:30 UT.
Photographs show a striking blue-green coma, a feature often seen in comets that journey into the inner solar system. Solar ultraviolet (UV) light breaks down large organic molecules boiling off the nucleus into simpler compounds, including green-glowing diatomic carbon (C2). Within a couple of days, that same energetic light destroys the molecule before it has time to leave the coma, preventing it from traveling into the comet’s tail and tinging it green. Sometimes the delightful Caribbean hue is subtly visible in binoculars, but normally a 6-inch or larger telescope is required.
Finder Chart for Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3)Use this finder chart to spot Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) as it marches across the northern sky. Comet positions are shown for 0h UT on the indicated date. Click here for a high-resolution map.
Sky & Telescope
Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) is named for the Zwicky Transient Facility, a public-private partnership based at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in California. Every two nights, a wide-field CCD camera attached to the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope scans the entire northern sky in search of anything that blinks or moves. Among its quarry are near-Earth asteroids, thousands of supernovae (more than 6,600 classified to date), and numerous comets.
Comet ZTF E3 evolutionThis image sequence shows the comet’s evolution from a 14th-magnitude blip on June 4, 2022, (upper left) to a binocular-bright object with two tails on December 28th. The same focal length, camera, and similar exposure time were used for each photo except November 19th due to the comet’s low altitude. Its distance from the Sun (r) and Earth (d) in astronomical units (a.u.) are also shown.
Dídac Mesa Romeu
C/2022 E3 was discovered on March 2, 2022, and initially reported as an asteroid candidate. One night later, Japanese observer Hirohisa Sato’s photographs of the object revealed a small coma, changing its status to a comet. More observations by additional observers confirmed Sato’s report. At the time, the 17th-magnitude speck was nearly 5 astronomical units from Earth, nearly identical to Jupiter’s average distance from the Sun.
On January 16–17, you’ll find our fuzzy friend in northeastern Boötes headed northwest at around 1.5° per day. Closest approach to Earth occurs on February 1st, when the comet will whiz past at 42 million kilometers (26 million miles). Perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurred on January 12th at 166 million kilometers (103 million miles). While its inbound period was 53,000 years, due to perturbations by the planets ZTF is now headed out of the solar system altogether. Perhaps one day the peripatetic puffball will become another star system’s first interstellar comet.
Comet ZTF E3 orbitWith an inclination of 109°, Comet ZTF E3’s orbit is steeply tilted to the plane of the planets. It’s headed southward in January and will cross the ecliptic plane on February 12th.
As Comet ZTF E3 closes in on our planet in the coming weeks, its apparent motion across the northern sky and altitude increase quickly. The comet becomes a circumpolar object for the northern states and Canada around January 17th and for the rest of the continental U.S. on January 25th. Come month’s end, Comet ZTF will be trucking along at the rate of 6.5° a day! That’s better than ¼° per hour, making its motion relative to the background stars obvious through a telescope after just a few minutes. Even 10× binoculars will reveal movement in an hour or two.
Comet ZTF mapThe comet speedily mounts the northern sky this month as seen from latitude 45° north. Positions are shown for 11 p.m. CST. Remember to use binoculars as the comet will likely appear rather faint from light-polluted locations.
Stellarium with additions by Bob King
Comet ZTF E3 Spanish mapIn this Spanish language version, the comet’s position is shown every 3 nights for latitude 35° south at 10 p.m. CST. Stars are plotted to ~6.0 magnitude. From mid-southern latitudes, Comet ZTF will first become visible low in the northern sky in Auriga in early February. The position of Mars (Marte) is shown for Feb. 7.
Stellarium with additions by Bob King
From latitude 40° north the comet stands 10° high in the northeastern sky on the night of January 16–17 at local midnight. That improves to 21° five nights later on January 21st. During much of January, observers in the northern U.S. will see the comet higher up earlier in the night compared to those in the southern part of the country, where the best views will be after 2 a.m. local time. Viewing becomes more equitable across the U.S. by late January when the object will be circumpolar for everyone. The table below addresses Comet ZTF’s continually changing circumstances as it climbs higher and higher while playing tag with the Moon.
Dates Comet 25° or higher, minimal Moon Moon phase
Jan. 16–24 Midnight till dawn Waning crescent to waxing crescent
Jan. 24 11 p.m. till dawn Waxing crescent
Jan. 25 10 p.m. till dawn ” ”
Jan. 26 9 p.m. till dawn ” ”
Jan. 27–28 7 p.m. till dawn ” ”
Jan. 29–Feb. 2 Early morning hours after moonset First quarter to waxing gibbous
Feb. 3–5 Moon interferes all night Waxing gibbous to full Moon
Feb. 6–22 Moonless window opens again — evening hours Waning gibbous to waxing crescent
Here are the best times for viewing the comet through late February from latitude 40° north. “Best” is defined as minimal interference from moonlight with the comet at least 25° high. Southern observers will see the comet a little lower; northern ones higher. Bolded dates are nights with little to modest moonlight and convenient evening viewing hours.
First-quarter phase occurs on January 28th, when the Moon will set around 12:30 a.m. (on January 29th). A half-moon isn’t much of a comet-killer especially when it shines at the opposite end of the sky. However, by month’s end, the waxing gibbous Moon in Taurus and then Gemini will diminish the comet’s appearance if you plan to observe it before midnight. Fortunately, the Moon sets in the wee hours through February 2nd, leaving dark-sky windows to observe and photograph the bearded visitor at its closest and brightest.
Comet ZTF E3 dust tailThe comet’s short but prominent dust tail — seen here on January 3, 2023 — is fan-shaped and easily seen in a telescope. It currently points to the northwest. The much fainter ion tail (right) extends to the north-northeast.
By early February the comet is firmly ensconced in the evening sky. It slides about 1.5° southwest of Capella on the evening of February 5th, the night of full Moon. The following evening it brushes Zeta (ζ) Aurigae in the Kids asterism. While the compact nuclear region will miss the star by ~10′, the fluffy coma may temporarily engulf it. Mars gets a visit on the night of February 10–11 when the comet cruises about 1.5° northeast of the planet for observers in the eastern half of the Americas. West Coast viewers will see them just 1° apart. The two bodies, one golden-orange, the other green and turquoise, should make a fine color contrast in time-exposure photos. Come Valentine’s Day (February 14th), Comet ZTF will have faded to about magnitude 7.0 and glow in a moonless sky around 1.5° east of Aldebaran in Taurus.
Then it’s back to the Oort Cloud for this interloper. Like most comets from this distant realm, its C/2022 E3’s first journey to the inner solar system, and we’ll likely never see it again. So don’t forget to wave “goodbye!” You can stay abreast of the comet’s magnitude, coma diameter, and more at the Comet Observation Database (COBS). Click on the Recent Observations link, then search for C/2022 E3. Another excellent source is Weekly Information about Bright Comets. Happy hunting!