For thousands of years, civilizations across the world have turned up towards the night sky, spellbound by the forever-twinkling stars. This upcoming month, a new visitor will be temporarily sharing this incredible night sky—a comet by the name of C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
The comet’s path, as according to the Planetary Society, has an orbit around the sun, which then loops back through the outermost regions of the solar system; making its closest approach to the sun, called a perihelion, on January 12.
Re-discovered last March at a distance of four hundred million miles away, the last time this comet made an appearance in the Earth’s night sky was in the Late Stone Age. Back then, humans had not yet made it to Europet, Neanderthals still roamed the Earth, and the sewing needle was the newest invention on the block. “I like that [it] appears every 50,000 years, it gives us a connection to the past and to the distant future; it connects generations of civilizations” comments long-time science teacher Brendan Crowley.
Crowley himself has had quite a few encounters with comets throughout his life, namely Halley’s Comet in 1986 and NEOWISE 34 years later. “Halley’s Comet [was my first]… I was ten years old [and] I luckily grew up under dark skies and could see it with my own eyes—it looked like a fuzzy star!” Crowley says. The publicity of Halley’s comet struck Crowley, who felt lucky to have seen this famous comet in its approximately eighty year re-appearance cycle. The next time this comet will be visible will be in July of 2061, to which Crowley remarks, “I’ll be 85 years old, so I imagine all stars will look fuzzy!”
More recently, Crowley had the opportunity to view NEOWISE in March 2020, “it looked like a white-green smudge across the sky—we were in lockdown with my brother and his family. Not a lot of bright spots during that time, but the comet NEOWISE was definitely one of them!”
Though not yet having witnessed a comet from Concord Academy due to the poor timing of the COVID-19 pandemic coinciding with NEOWISE’s arrival in the night sky, C/2022 E3 presents the possibility to do so!
Stargazers in the northern hemisphere will have the opportunity to witness this rare space event through January and into February via binoculars in the early morning sky. C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be making its closest approach to Earth on the night of February 1 and into February 2 some 26 million miles away, at which point the comet can be seen near Polaris—the Northern Star—and will be most visible in the early evening. Crowley shares that this one could be bright enough to be seen with only the naked eye over the next few weeks.
To best witness this comet from CA, Crowley recommends viewing it from the roof of Labs. “Though comets are notoriously difficult to predict [in terms of brightness], Labs is well-situated for observation of the northern sky, which is where the comet should be,” though it seems a telescope will likely be required to do so. “I’ll keep my eye on it and, if it seems like the stars will align (pun intended) I will let the CA community know and set up some telescopes to view it!”
Overall, when asked what makes this occurrence so incredible, Crowley commented, “I just feel very thankful to look up and see the same stars that essentially every other human that has ever lived has seen; it really is remarkable!”