The year has started off with a rare treat for sky-watchers: A recently discovered comet that may soon be brightening.
On Jan. 12, the comet — called C/2022 E3 (ZTF) — made its closest pass around the sun. Now, it’s heading back out of the solar system and swinging by Earth, making its closest approach on Feb. 1.
The best part is that it is a circumpolar comet and is seen high in the north, which means Canada is in an ideal place from which to spot it.
“Right now, it’s certainly too faint to see with the naked eye,” said Paul Wiegert, a professor at Western University’s department of physics and astronomy. But, he added, “It will get brighter as we get towards the end of the month.”
Just how bright, no one can say: Comets are notoriously difficult to predict. While we know of comets that make regular appearances called periodic comets — think Halley’s Comet, which orbits roughly once every 76 years — there are always new ones being discovered, like Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
And because their brightness is hard to predict, it means that anything can happen.
Take Comet Leonard (C/2021 A1), which was predicted to be the brightest comet of 2021. In the end, the comet disintegrated as it swung past the sun. Fortunately, though, Comet NEOWISE put on a fine show later in the year.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is also a periodic comet. But if you miss it now, you’ll never see it: It orbits the sun once every 50,000 years.
The comet gets its name in part due to the Zwicky Transient Facility, which conducts wide-field surveys of the northern night sky every two days from the Palomar Observatory in San Diego. The facility found the comet in March 2022.
When and how to see it
As it begins to make its way to its closest Earth pass, the comet should begin to brighten in our night sky. At the moment, it is only visible through binoculars, but even finding it that way can be difficult.
“You’d have no problem seeing it with binoculars. It’s certainly bright enough,” Wiegert said. “The tricky part with binoculars is always making sure you’re trying to point in the right direction, and that takes a little bit of practice.”
As the comet moves through the stars from night to night, the best way to find it in your location is to use TheSkyLive.com. This site allows you to enter your location and then provides you with a wealth of information, including the comet’s brightness, the constellation in which it can be found and even provides a map of its location.
The comet is anticipated to increase in brightness over the next two weeks, but it may still not be bright enough to see without binoculars. Right now, it is about magnitude 6.6 — the lower the number, the brighter an object — but astronomers hope it will increase in brightness. (To put that in perspective, the full moon’s brightness registers at about a magnitude of -12.6.)
But if you have a clear evening, you can try finding the comet as it moves across the sky in the coming nights — and even compare its brightness over the weeks.
And it’s probably a good idea to look for it days ahead of its closest approach, as the moon will be nearly fully illuminated on Feb. 1.
Meanwhile, Wiegert, an astronomer and comet expert, is excited to not only see the comet but also to study it.
“Comets are essentially the leftovers or the ingredients of the planets and the rest of our solar system,” he said. “Earth is old and has been processed a lot over time.
“And so the analogy we sometimes use is that Earth is like a chocolate cake: It doesn’t look all that much like the ingredients that went into it initially — the flour, the eggs and so forth — but if you’re interested in chocolate cake, then you might be interested in those ingredients.”