A comet not seen for 50,000 years is approaching Earth soon.  Here’s when to look up: ScienceAlert

A comet not seen for 50,000 years is approaching Earth soon. Here’s when to look up: ScienceAlert

A comet not seen for 50,000 years is approaching Earth soon.  Here’s when to look up: ScienceAlert

Astronomers said the newly discovered comet could be visible to the naked eye as it flies past Earth and the Sun in the coming weeks, for the first time in 50,000 years.

The comet is named C/2022 E3 (ZTF) after the Zwicky Transient Facility, which first spotted it passing Jupiter last March.

After traveling from the icy corners of our solar system, it will make its closest approach to the Sun on January 12 and will pass closest to Earth on February 1.

It will be easy to spot with good binoculars, and possibly even with the naked eye, provided the sky is not too lit by city lights or the Moon.

The comet “will be brightest when it’s closest to Earth,” Thomas Prince, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who works at the Zwicky Transient Facility, told AFP.

Made of ice and dust and emitting a greenish aura, the comet is about a kilometer (0.62 miles) across, said Nicolas Biver, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory.

This makes it much smaller than NEOWISE, the last naked-eye comet that passed Earth in March 2020, and Comet Hale-Bopp that flew by in 1997, with a potentially life-sized diameter of around 60 kilometers.

But the latest visitor will get closer to Earth, which “may compensate for the fact that it’s not very large,” Biver said.

While the comet will be at its brightest as it passes Earth in early February, the full moon can make it difficult to spot.

For the northern hemisphere, Biver suggested the last week of January, when the comet passes between the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.

He said the New Moon on the weekend of January 21-22 is a good deal for stargazers.

“We may also have a pleasant surprise, and the object may be twice as bright as expected,” added Biver.

Prince said the next opportunity to locate the comet in the sky will come on February 10 when it passes close to Mars.

“Rare Visitor”

The comet has spent most of its life “at least 2,500 times farther than the Earth is from the Sun,” Prince said.

Biver said the comet is believed to originate in the Oort Cloud, a theoretically vast sphere surrounding the solar system that hosts mysterious icy objects.

The last time a comet passed the Earth was in the Upper Paleolithic period, when Neanderthals were still roaming the Earth.

Prince said the comet’s next visit to the inner solar system is expected in another 50,000 years.

But Biver said there was a possibility that the comet would be “permanently ejected from the solar system” after this visit.

Among those watching closely will be the James Webb Space Telescope. However, it won’t take pictures, instead examining the composition of the comet, Biver said.

The closer a comet is to Earth, the easier it is for telescopes to measure its composition “as the Sun evaporates from its outer layers,” Prince said.

This “rare visitor” will provide us with “information about the inhabitants of our solar system far beyond the most distant planets,” he added.

© Agence France-Presse

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