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Green comet appearing in Texas skies over the next few weeks

 C/2022 E3 ZTF
C/2022 E3 ZTF

A comet is making a close approach to Earth and should be a treat for sky watchers. The comet is named C/2022 E3 ZTF. TPR's Jerry Clayton recently spoke with Lara Eakins, program coordinator in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin about its discovery, what to expect and the best way to view it.

Clayton: Tell us a bit about how this comet was discovered and is there a chance it might get a better name?

Eakins: Probably not because of the way it was discovered. There are a lot of facilities out there that are constantly observing the sky, and they're typically looking for other things. Like in the case of this comet, it was discovered by the Zwicky transient facility that is actually looking for what we call time domain observations or transient observations of things like supernovas or gamma ray bursts.

They're not things that are necessarily predicted to happen. It's just something that explodes or whatever. And so we have these facilities that monitor for those things all the time. But in the process of doing that, they find comets and asteroids and other things. And that's actually how this comment was discovered. So the ZTF in its name actually stands for the Zwicky Transient Facility. We do need a nickname for it, though.

Clayton: There have been comets that have passed by the Earth before and predicted to be spectacular, but turned out to be big disappointments and in the way of they weren't so easy to see. Why is it so hard to predict how these comets will appear?

Eakins: Well, one of my coworkers who studies comments likes to compare them to cats. They're unpredictable and they have tails because it's very accurate. Part of the problem, especially with a comet like this, where it hasn't come through the inner solar system on a regular basis. We think it's the first time it's come into the sun in about 50,000 years based on its orbit. So we don't really have a good idea completely of what it's made of or how old the comet may be.

If it made lots of passes through, it might have already been stripped of a lot of its dust and ice. And therefore when it comes through the next time, there might not be as much stuff to give off, to reflect, to be as bright. But with some of these, we've never seen them before, especially not in the telescopic era. So being able to characterize exactly how they're going to react when they interact with the solar wind as they come in closer to the sun and closer to the earth is really difficult. For more regular comets, it is a little easier to predict. But some of these that we're seeing for the first time, it's just really hard to know for sure exactly how it's going to behave like a cat.

Clayton: What is the best way to see this comet?

Eakins: That actually is going to be changing rapidly over the next few weeks. Generally speaking, you always want to get out to a nice dark sight away from city lights. That's especially helpful with comets. And if you want to look with your naked eye after it gets a little brighter, hopefully gets a little brighter, or with binoculars, just to be able to see more detail of the tail and stuff being in darker skies. It's going to help.

Currently, you still have to get up kind of early in the morning to see it. But as the comet is coming through the solar system, it's still approaching the earth right now, and will actually get closest to the earth around February 1st and second. And at that point, in fact, about a week before that, it's going to be in a part of the sky that actually never really completely sets from from Austin or from Texas, what we call circumpolar, which means that it's something close to the Northern Star and therefore never actually goes below the horizon.

Your only limits are when the sun is up and therefore it's not dark enough to actually see the object. It's going to be really close to Polaris, the Northern Star by the very end of January, early February. And as it continues through the inner solar system, it's going to pass by other stars and it will be going gradually more away from the Northern Star toward the east.

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Jerry Clayton