By Travis Mounts, TSnews
A comet will start coming into view this week, and it will be the first time in about 50,000 years that this comet has graced Earth’s skies.
The comet does not have a sexy name – it is known as C/2022 E3 (ZTF) – but it still has the skywatching community excited. That name could change, according to Brent Newton, a local astrophotographer associated with the Lake Afton Observatory.
“It’s possible this one gets a name if it becomes visible to the naked eye,” he explained. The “ZTF” in the name stands for the Zwicky Transient Facility, the location of the wide-field survey camera at Palomar Observatory in San Diego that discovered the comet.
The comet is making its closest approach to the sun this Thursday, according to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
“They’re basically dirty snowballs,” Newton explained. The closer to the sun a comet gets, the more the ice and snow sublimates. That creates more of a tail.
This week, it will be difficult to see the comet. We’re coming off a full moon, so there will be a lot of light pollution, even if you are out in the country, Newton said. With a full moon, observing the sky in the country is about the same as observing it from a downtown city location.
But moving into next week, Newton said, the sky will get darker and the comet will get closer to Earth. This will make it easier to observe the comet.
This week, if the comet is visible, it will be in the early morning hours and low to the horizon. Binoculars or a telescope are recommended; the comet might not be observable to the naked eye. Newton advised going outside at around 6 a.m. next week.
Newton cautioned that the comet might not be observable until around Jan. 27. By then, the comet will be visible in the evening rather than in the early morning or overnight hours, and should be high enough in the sky to be in the field of view of the telescope at the Lake Afton Observatory. The comet must be high enough to clear trees and other earth-bound obstacles, and also high enough for the telescope to see over the observatory building.
CNN reported that the comet was discovered in March 2022. Newton said the camera takes many fields of view of the sky. Astronomers then look for discrepancies.
“Eventually you find a dot that’s moving,” Newton said.
The folks at Lake Afton Observatory will eventually try to track the comet. Like any night, cloud cover and other factors impact the ability for the telescope to see various celestial objects.
Winter hours for the observatory are 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Those hours will adjust at various times as spring nears and then turns to summer.
Winter is the best time to view the skies, Newton said. The colder air provides a clearer view. Dress warmly, he advised, because the dome where the telescope is located is open to the sky and is unheated.
In the summer, nights are shorter and that limits the time any telescope can be used. Warmer air is more humid air, and that can interfere with the view. Think of how the air shimmers above a hot parking lot in the heat of summer.
Outside of the comet, right now is a quiet time, astronomically speaking. The Orion Nebula is always interesting, Newton said.
For more information on hours and programs, visit www.lakeafton.com.