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Look up! You can see a bright green comet making a rare trip across the Earth's sky

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered by astronomers using the wide-field survey camera at the Zwicky Transient Facility in March 2022.
Dan Bartlett
/
NASA
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered by astronomers using the wide-field survey camera at the Zwicky Transient Facility in March 2022.

Updated January 31, 2023 at 11:29 AM ET

It's prime time to see the comet known as C/2022 E3, marked by its bright green nucleus and long faint ion tail. The comet has been visible for some time with telescopes and binoculars — but the best chance of seeing it with the naked eye is coming up on Wednesday, Feb. 1.

This marks possibly the first time ever — or at least for thousands of years — that the comet has streaked across our sky.

"If C/2022 E3 has ever passed through the solar system before, it would have last been seen in the sky more than 10,000 years ago," Jon Giorgini, a senior analyst at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told NPR.

Astronomers first spotted the brightening outburst in March 2022 at the Zwicky Transient Facility on Palomar Mountain in California. At the time, the comet was inside the orbit of Jupiter.

The best chance to see the comet is between Feb. 1 and Feb. 2

For months, the comet has been moving closer to Earth and as a result it's becoming more visible in the Earth sky.

Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, the newly discovered comet is slated to draw nearest to Earth — 26.4 million miles away to be exact — meaning that night will be the best chance to see its glow unaided.

Comets are essentially clumps of frozen gases, rock and dust. But when they approach the sun and heat up, they become powerful cosmic objects, spewing gases and dust in a way that forms their iconic shape: a glowing core and flame-like tail that can stretch on for millions of miles.

The brightness of comets tends to be unpredictable, but this one's current behavior is promising, according to a recent explainer from Preston Dyches of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Its glow may be visible to the naked eye in dark night skies, he said, while observers with binoculars or telescopes have a greater chance of witnessing the rare speck of light. If you miss it on Feb. 1, the comet should still be visible throughout the month.

Spectators in the Northern Hemisphere can begin to spot the comet's faint glow in the morning sky, as it journeys toward the northwest, according to Dyches. The comet will likely be visible to those in the Southern Hemisphere starting early February.

After its brief appearance in the Earth skies, it's unclear where it may go.

Because scientists have only recently begun to track the comet's path, there is still a lot to understand about C/2022 E3, says Giorgini.

It's possible it may gain enough energy to fling out of our solar system, or it might remain bound to its elliptical orbit for another trip around the sun.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.