Comet E3 to make closest approach to Earth tonight

An ancient object that hasn't visited the inner solar system in 50,000 years has gained the attention of stargazers across the Northern Hemisphere, and it could end up being one of the biggest celestial surprises of 2023.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) has been shining progressively brighter in recent weeks, and experts say that it is now bright enough to see with the unaided eye from dark areas.

A zoomed-in image of Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) captured on Jan. 23, 2023. (Michael Borland)

Celestial sleuths at the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) in Southern California were the first to detect the comet on March 2, 2022, and the object has been growing brighter since its discovery. It made its closest approach to the sun on Jan. 12 and will reach peak brightness when it flies past the Earth on Feb. 1.

"This comet isn't expected to be quite the spectacle that Comet NEOWISE was back in 2020," NASA said. "But it's still an awesome opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system."

To the common observer, the comet will look like a fuzzy green star rather than a prominent feature with a massive tail stretching across the sky. Although the comet is bright enough to see with the naked eye, stargazers who live near bigger metro areas with lots of bright lights may need to head to a location where there is minimal light pollution in order to spot the celestial vagabond.

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Even though no special equipment is needed to spot the comet, it is best seen through the lens of a telescope or with the help of binoculars. Still, its appearance through a telescope will not hold a candle to the incredible long-exposure photos captured by professional astrophotographers.

Recent photos have revealed that the comet has developed three tails, features that can only be seen with close-up, long-exposure photography.

A stacked photo of Comet 2022 E3 ZTF that is comprised of 88 images. (Dmitry Kolesnikov)

For common stargazers and professional photographers alike, a cloud-free view of the northern sky will be required for a chance to see the astronomical wonder.

Comet E3 will be found between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper in the final nights of January leading up to its closest encounter with the Earth on Feb. 1. It will appear stationary in the sky, but its movement will be evident for those who look for the comet several nights in a row.

A sky chart showing the location of Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) throughout January. (NASA)

The easiest time to see the comet will be during the second weekend of February as it passes incredibly close to another object in the night sky.

"If it's your first attempt to locate a comet, try on February 10, 2023, when the comet appears extremely close to Mars," EarthSky explained on its website.

Comet E3 will begin to fade away during the second half of February as it moves farther away from the Earth and the sun, making it more difficult to find, even with a telescope.

It could end up being the most notable comet of 2023 as many other comets visiting the inner solar system this year are not predicted to shine as brightly in the night sky, according to Star Walk.

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