Viewable Comet Since 50,000 Years Ago

Ethan Wong

January 13, 2023

With the year 2023 just commencing, people already have something to look forward to in the upcoming month. A comet with the name C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered early last year and will now pass by Earth, viewable to the naked eye just 28 million miles away from our planet between February 1st and 2nd. Because this comet has a period of over 50,000 years, the last time this comet would’ve been in such close proximity to both the Earth and Sun would’ve been during the Upper Paleolithic Era, a period that had been around the conclusion of a previous Ice Age. The development of humans at that period indicates that early Neanderthals would’ve never been capable of comprehending such an observation. However, this might be our only shot to witness such a comet as it reaches perigee in less than one month.

Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin were the first to find this comet on March 2nd, 2022 through the Zwicky Transient Facility. Although the two observers thought C/2022 E3 was an asteroid upon discovery, it was later confirmed to be a comet, through the examination of a condensed green coma that was noted on the “asteroid”. The comet that the astronomers had discovered was located near Jupiter, which contained an apparent magnitude of around positive 17.3, and its distance from the Sun was around 4.3 astronomical units (AU). 

To understand these values better, the comet is currently around 121 million kilometers or 0.8 AU from our planet and it takes light around 6 minutes to travel from Earth to the comet (for reference, it takes 8 minutes to the Sun). 

The name C/2022 E3 is an odd name to give a comet, yet it provides information about its discovery. The “C” was given to the address that the comet is not periodic and that its journey through our Solar System will only occur once. Following that is “2022” which indicates the year it was discovered. Such an object can be indicated by “E3”, the letter describing the month of March, and the number representing the number of said objects that have been recorded within that month. 

After entering the inner solar system, the flight plan of C/2022 E3 is set to pass by Earth at its lowest point of 42 million kilometers on February 1st, 2023. Before then, it is predicted that the comet will reach Perihelion on January 12th (closest to the Sun), yet is currently positioned near the constellation of Corona Borealis and the stars of Arcturus and Vega. Later in January, C/2022 E3 will pass by the constellations of Draco and Ursa Minor, slowly increasing in brightness until February 1st. Although this comet is still too faint without a telescope, the location of the comet will be presented on multiple viewing websites which can allow you to determine if your location is ideal to view the comet.

As C/2022 E3 continues its journey towards the northwest side of Earth, viewers within that area should have the best spot to observe this comet in the early morning. However, there are no promises that this comet will be visible to viewers who might be hindered by pollution, the light of the Moon, or just their location. Despite that, it is still an amazing opportunity for those who do end up spotting C/2022 E3 (ZTF).