The last time the C/2022 E3 comet zipped past Earth, it was during an ice age. Our primate ancestors who may have witnessed this event are long gone. Granted, it’s been 50,000 years.
Later this month, modern humans can witness the frozen dustball, a leftover from the solar system’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. The green-tinted comet C/2022 E3 is a recent discovery, made last March by astronomers Bryce Bolin and Frank Masci at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego. At the time of its first recorded sighting, the comet could only be detected with the most sophisticated telescopes.
But in the later part of January, people can easily see it via a pair of binoculars. Most of the solar system’s planets can also be spotted with the naked eye, especially Venus, which is currently the brightest celestial object in the night sky after the moon.
“It'll [the comet] look like a fuzzy thumbprint,” said Bart Fried, vice president of operations at the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. “If we're lucky, we'll see a dust tail, and if we're unbelievably lucky, we will also see an ion tail, which is ionized gas, and in photographs it tends to look greenish.”
When can you see the comet?
On Jan. 12, the comet will be at perihelion, the closest it will get to the sun, but it won’t reach perigee, the nearest point to Earth on its path, until Feb. 1. But the perigee won’t be the best time for New Yorkers to view the comet in any case because the moon will be too bright.
The best window will run from Jan. 18 through Jan. 25, when the moon will still be relatively dim. The optimal viewing time will occur in the pre-dawn hours between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.
During that period, the comet can be found in the sky passing by the constellation of Hercules and then its position will move among the stars that make up the tail of Draco. By the end of the month, the comet can be located by finding the Little Dipper. These collections of stars will appear as pinpoints in the background of the flying fireball of gas and dust.
For the best shot at savoring a glimpse of this giant dirty snowball, Fried suggested heading to areas with dark skies, such as Montauk on Long Island. The comet may be visible with the naked eye from Jan. 18-25, but that’s hard to forecast because as comets get close to the sun, they become unpredictable.
“Comets are notoriously fickle depending on where they came from and what they are made of,” Fried said. “As they get close to the sun, some of them break apart. Some of them just do a deep dive right into the sun, and you don't see them after they pass the sun. Some of them brighten dramatically.”
Uncertain as comets can be, January’s night sky will also entice stargazers with other cosmic delights. With the exceptions of Uranus and Neptune, the planets are visible just by looking up.
For astronomy geeks, Mercury is approaching its greatest western elongation, meaning it’s at its highest point in the sky. The best time to see the solar system’s smallest planet is in the early morning when it will be low in the eastern horizon, just before sunrise. At that point, Mercury will be at its farthest position from the sun. Usually, it’s tricky to spot because of the sun’s glare.
For an opportunity for a really close look at the planets, or possibly a glimpse of the comet, the Amateur Astronomers Association will host free public telescope viewings on Friday, Jan. 27 at 5:30 p.m. at Floyd Bennett AirField in Brooklyn and another gathering the following evening at 8 p.m. at Great Kills Park on Staten Island, weather permitting.