A comet from the outer solar system is set to swing through our cosmic neighborhood this month for the first time in 50,000 years, offering skywatchers a glimpse of this celestial object as it nears Earth and the sun in a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
The comet, officially known as C/2022 E3 (ZTF), will make its closest approach to the sun on Thursday and could be bright enough to be seen through telescopes and binoculars.
Comets can be tricky to spot in the night sky, but this cosmic interloper has been steadily brightening as it moves through the inner solar system, which should help people catch a glimpse, according to NASA.
Astronomers have been tracking the comet as it approaches, but amateur skywatchers may have a good chance to see the comet in the early morning sky on Thursday, sometime after midnight but before dawn. People in the Northern Hemisphere should stake out a spot looking toward the northeastern sky and gaze low on the horizon, according to EarthSky, a website devoted to skywatching and astronomy.
With binoculars, the comet may appear as a faint green glow in the sky moving northwest. Telescopes will likely be able to spy finer details of the "green comet," possibly including part of its faint tail.
Skywatchers will have chances to glimpse the comet through most of the remainder of the month. The icy object will then make its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 2, NASA officials said. At that point, the comet will come within about 26 million miles of the planet, according to The Planetary Society.
If the comet continues brightening, it may be possible to see it with the naked eye as it makes its closest approach to Earth in early February.
After that, the next opportunity to see Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) won't come around for a long, long time. This icy body has a long orbit that takes it on a journey around the sun and far into the outer solar system over thousands of years.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility's wide-field survey camera at the Palomar Observatory, north of San Diego.