A newly-discovered green comet is nearing Earth and it may be visible to the naked eye
To kick off 2023, Earthlings could catch an extraordinary sight in the sky as a recently discovered comet travels past our world.
The comet, dubbed C/2022 E3 (ZTF), was first sighted in March 2022, according to NASA. It likely traveled hundreds of billions of miles to reach the inner solar system.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be closest to the sun on Jan. 12 and will pass Earth at a distance of 26.4 million miles on Feb. 2, NASA said.
If the comet ever returns, it won't be at least for another 50,000 years, experts say. Here's what you need to know about viewing the once-in-a-lifetime event.
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What time can you see the green comet pass?
For people in the Northern Hemisphere, C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be visible in the predawn sky with binoculars or a small telescope for all of January.
The Southern Hemisphere will be able to observe the comet at the start of February, NASA said.
There's no guarantee, but the best chance of seeing it with your own eyes is a clear dark sky before dawn without the light pollution of cities.
A December telescopic image captured by astrophotographer Dan Bartlett shows C/2022 E3 (ZTF) with an impressive "brighter greenish coma, short broad dust tail, and long faint ion tail," NASA writes.
The comet's coma "has a distinctive green color in photographs due to its chemical composition," Space.com reports, adding that the color "suggests the presence of diatomic carbon, or dicarbons."
Can I see the comet with a naked eye?
Depending on viewing conditions and the comet's brightness, it might be possible to see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) with a naked eye.
"Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but if this one continues its current trend in brightness, it'll be easy to spot with binoculars, and it's just possible it could become visible to the unaided eye under dark skies," NASA noted in its January 2023 skywatching tips.
"This comet isn't expected to be quite the spectacle that Comet NEOWISE was back in 2020. But it's still an awesome opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system," the agency added.
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Where did C/2022 E3 (ZTF) originate from?
According to CBS and Newsweek, experts say that the comet likely originated from the Oort Cloud – the most distant region of our solar system that NASA describes as "a big, thick-walled bubble made of icy pieces of space debris the sizes of mountains and sometimes larger."
Assuming C/2022 E3 (ZTF) originated from this region, the comet has traveled hundreds of billions of miles from the Oort Cloud to its upcoming passage of the sun and Earth.
Britannica.com says the part of the Oort Cloud where new comets originate is between 40,000 and 50,000 astronomical units from the sun, or more than 3.72 trillion miles.
Will Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) return? Not for at least 50,000 years
The future of the comet's journey after it passes through the inner solar system remains unknown. But don't expect to see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) from Earth's skies again in your lifetime.
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"We don't have an estimate for the furthest it will get from the Earth yet – estimates vary – but if it does return it won't be for at least 50,000 years," Jessica Lee, an astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Newsweek.
She added that "some predictions suggest that the orbit of this comet is so eccentric it's no longer in an orbit," meaning that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) may never return.
January and February may also mark the only time in recorded history that humans will be able to see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) from Earth.
"Most known long-period comets have been seen only once in recorded history because their orbital periods are so, well, long," NASA said in a statement to CBS. "Countless more unknown long-period comets have never been seen by human eyes. Some have orbits so long that the last time they passed through the inner solar system, our species did not yet exist."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Green comet approaches Earth: How to watch comet ZTF's path across sky