The comet is approaching Earth and should be a real treat for sky watchers. The comet was named C/2022 E3 ZTF. Jerry Clayton of TPR 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 see it.
Clayton: Tell us a little about how this comet was discovered and is there any chance it will get a better name?
Eakins: Probably not because of how it was discovered. There are many objects that are constantly watching the sky, and usually they are looking for something else. As with this comet, it was discovered with the help of the Zwicky Transition Research Center, which is actually looking for what we call time-domain observations or transient observations of things like supernovae or gamma-ray bursts.
It’s not something that has to happen. It’s just something that explodes or something like that. And so we have these entities that are constantly monitoring these things. But in the process, they find comets and asteroids and other things. And that’s how this comment was discovered. Thus, ZTF in its name actually stands for Zwicky Transient Facility. However, for this we need a nickname.
Clayton: There have been comets that have passed the Earth before that were predicted to be spectacular, but turned out to be big disappointments and weren’t easy to see. Why is it so difficult to predict how these comets will appear?
Eakins: Well, one of my coworkers who studies comments likes to compare them to cats. They are unpredictable and they have tails because they are very accurate. Part of the problem, especially with a comet like this, is that it didn’t pass through the inner solar system on a regular basis. Based on its orbit, we think this is the first time in 50,000 years that it has come close to the Sun. Thus, we do not have a complete idea of what it is made of or how old the comet is.
If he had made many passes, he might have already cleared a lot of dust and ice. And so, next time it happens, there may not be many things to emit, to reflect, to be as bright. But some of them we have never seen before, especially in the era of telescopes. Thus, it is very difficult to accurately describe how they will react to interaction with the solar wind as they approach the sun and the earth. For more regular comets, it’s a bit easier to predict. But some of them we see for the first time, it’s just very difficult to know exactly how they will behave as cats.
Clayton: What’s the best way to see this comet?
Eakins: This is actually going to change rapidly over the next few weeks. Generally speaking, you always want to get out to a nice dark place away from city lights. This is especially useful with comets. And if you want to look with the naked eye after it gets a little brighter, hopefully a little brighter, or with binoculars, just to see more tail detail and stuff in the darker sky. This will help.
Currently, you still need to get up early in the morning to see it. But as the comet passes through the solar system, it is still approaching Earth right now and will actually approach Earth around February 1st and 2nd. And at this point, actually, about a week before that, it’s going to be a part of the sky that never really sets completely from Austin or from Texas, what we call circumpolar, which means it’s something- something close to the North Star and therefore never actually goes beyond the horizon.
Your only limitations are when the sun is up and therefore not dark enough to see the object. It will be very close to the North Star, by the very end of January, the beginning of February. And as it passes through the inner solar system, it will pass other stars and gradually move away from the North Star towards the east.
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