By now you will have heard of the “green comet”—comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the first relatively bright comet since 202o’s comet NEOWISE.
But have you seen it yet? It takes some doing.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) this week becomes relatively easy to find—but only using binoculars unless, you’re under incredibly dark skies—thanks to its apparent passing in the northern hemisphere’s night sky of the Big Dipper.
Everyone knows the Big Dipper. This star cluster of seven bright stars—one of the closest clusters of stars top our solar system—isn’t actually a constellation, but an “asterism”—a familiar shape of stars that are part of a large constellation called Ursa Major, “ the Great Bear.”
The Big Dipper is comprised of seven constituent stars—Alkaid (at the tip of the tail, nearest the horizon), Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe (at the top). It’s a circumpolar constellation, meaning it revolves around Polaris, the North Star—the star the Earth’s northern axis points at —so is visible all night.
The only time it’s hard to find the Big Dipper is in fall, when it’s close to the horizon after dark. Hence the rule “spring up, fall down” for the position in the northern. hemisphere’s night sky of the Big Dipper.
Here are detailed sky-charts for the flyby of Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) and the Big Dipper for this weekend:
How to find Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) Thursday, Jan. 26
How to find Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) Friday, Jan. 27
How to find Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) Saturday, Jan. 28
How to find Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) Sunday, Jan. 29
You can also see the comet livestreamed online. The Virtual Telescope Project in Rome, Italy, will be broadcasting views of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF through a huge telescope. A live feed is scheduled for February 2, 2023 to catch the comet’s close flyby of Earth, when it should be at its brightest.
The truth about comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
All comets require patience and perseverance. If you want instant gratification—a quick five-second sight of a mighty fireball lighting-up the night sky—then comet-spotting is not for you. Here’s why:
- Although technically a naked eye object, comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is right on the cusp of easy visibility—you’re going to need to scan around the sky with binoculars.
- It’s only visible in pre-dawn twilight skies in the early morning, right before sunrise, at the moment (though it will soon be an evening object).
- light pollution makes a big difference to how easy it is to find a comet, so unless you’re in a dark sky area you have this problem, too.
- If could fizzle out at any time and go from fake to bright and back to fake in a matter of hours.
So comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is not the “comet of the century”—it’s only just bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, and even then it’s going to be challenging—though given the paucity of bright comests in one human lifetime it could still easily qualify as being the “comet of the year.”
How to see a livestream of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
Gianluca Masi at the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome, Italy, will be broadcasting live views of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF through a huge telescope on February 2, 2023 (the comet’s closest Earth flyby).
The discovery of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
This long-period comet—originally thought to be an asteroid—was discovered on March 2, 2022 in the constellation of Aquila by astronomers using the 48-inch telescope at the Zwicky Transient Facility at Mt. Palomar near San Diego, California. It’s a telescope that’s often used to discover new asteroids and comets. The “E3” refers to it being the third comet discovered in the fifth fortnight of 2022.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.