It’s your best chance to spot a once-in-a-lifetime green comet – here’s how | Science & Tech News

It’s fair to say this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.

For the first time in some 50,000 years, a green comet has this month been making a fly-by past Earth – and your best chance to spot it has now arrived.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) has been already visible through binoculars and telescopes, but will look so bright on Wednesday and Thursday night that you could be able to see it with the naked eye.

Here’s how to make sure you have a spectacular view.

What time should you be on the lookout?

The first two nights of February were earmarked as the best time to see the comet because that’s when it will be closest to the Earth – a mere 28 million miles away.

It means it will be visible from both the northern and southern hemisphere.

Dr Greg Brown, an astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, tells Sky News that those in the UK should wait until after midnight for the optimal view.

“In northern latitudes, like the UK, this part of the sky is low above the horizon early in the evening at this time, so waiting until after midnight, when it is much higher, is your best bet,” he says.

“The comet is at its brightest about now and will quickly drop in brightness as it starts to move away from us.”

18 January 2023, Lower Saxony, Drebber: The image shows comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) over Drebber, Lower Saxony. Green comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is getting closer to our planet during one of its rare visits. (to dpa "Green comet gets closer and closer to Earth and appears in the night sky") Photo by: Thomas Lindemann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The comet seen from Lower Saxony, northwest Germany, in mid-January

Where should you be looking?

The comet has travelled through the Corona Borealis, Bootes, Draco, and Ursa Minor constellations on its way to Camelopardalis the giraffe.

But you might be best served looking roughly halfway between Ursa Major and Minor, the two bears, Dr Brown says.

If that has you scratching your head, you might want to consider a stargazing app like Night Sky or SkyView to help locate the constellations.

By pointing your smartphone’s camera up at the night sky, such apps will use augmented reality to tell you which constellations you’re looking at and offer tips on how to spot comets.

As for your location on the ground, Dr Brown suggests a place with “minimal light pollution”.

He adds: “Beyond that, as long as your sky is clear and you have a view of the part of the sky the comet is in, you should have a good chance.”

As seen from the Pico de las Nieves, Gran Canaria
As seen from the Pico de las Nieves, Gran Canaria

And I don’t need any extra equipment?

C/2022 E3 (ZTF) falls just below the brightness that all but guarantees its visibility with the naked eye, but there’s a reasonable chance that it will be.

But Dr Brown says that a decent pair of binoculars or small telescope would of course make a difference.

Sky News reader John Short took the photo at the top of this article using a Vaonis Vespera smart telescope.

As for those aforementioned apps, some of them don’t update regularly enough to include newly found objects like C/2022 E3 (ZTF), but the major ones at the top of your phone’s app store search results should do.

And either way, they’ll be useful for helping you find those constellations if you’re unsure.

Dr Brown also recommends trying web-based resources like The Sky Live, which track new and popular interstellar objects and can help plan your observation.

A green comet named Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which last passed by our planet about 50,000 years ago is seen from the Pico de las Nieves, in the island of Gran Canaria, Spain, February 1, 2023. REUTERS/Borja Suarez
Another shot from Pico de las Nieves, taken in the early hours of 1 February

What if I’m reading this on Friday – am I out of luck?

Not necessarily!

This comet was visible before Wednesday night, and it will be visible beyond Thursday – you’ll just need equipment.

“It should still be a decent sight for a few weeks,” says Dr Brown.

“Though it will rapidly stop being visible through binoculars, requiring a small-medium telescope as it fades.

“It will also be moving across the sky throughout this time, so be sure to check where it is before hunting for it.”

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2020: Comet streaks across N Ireland night sky

And sorry, I should have asked this earlier… why is the comet green?

This icy green comet gets its colour due to a reaction between its gases and the sun.

The carbon compounds in those gases coming from the comet interact with ultraviolet light from the sun, and that’s what gives it its green glow.

It makes for a striking sight, and its orbital period – how long it takes to travel round the sun – means the last time it illuminated the night sky was back in the Stone Age.

So, if you’re heading out to see it, the very best of luck.

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