Look Up: Green Comet Not Seen Since Caveman Days Swings Near Earth

Approaching Comet
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Depending on the weather, early Tuesday morning might be your best viewing opportunity.

comet approaching
This photo provided by Dan Bartlett shows Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) on December 21, 2020. January 19, 2022. Its last visit was during the time of the Neanderthals, according to NASA. (Dan Bartlett via AP)

A green comet that has not been seen since woolly mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth is passing through us this winter. Do not miss the opportunity to see it.

Depending on the weather, early Tuesday morning might be your best viewing opportunity.

Michael Kelley, a research scientist at the University of Maryland Department of Astronomy, told WTOP that the morning hours are when the comet appears highest in the sky. It will appear quite close to the North Star. But if you’re a night owl, later in the week the nights will be more favorable for viewing.

Kelley said to pack binoculars, or a telescope if you have one, and head out of town where there is minimal light pollution. That will be the best chance to see the comet, depending on cloud cover.

“It’s really fun to see a comet for yourself if you get that chance. Hopefully we’ll have clear skies and everyone can try,” Kelley said.

The green comet has not been close to Earth for about 50,000 years. Its orbit takes it up to the Oort cloud, which is the very edge of our solar system.

“It’s fun to think about the age of these objects, the age of the Earth, the age of all those parts of our solar system,” Kelley said. “We are only a small part of that.”

Right now, it is traveling at about 90,000 miles per hour at about a third of the distance from Earth to the Sun. The Moon is about a hundred times closer. But even so, Kelley told WTOP that not many Oort cloud comets get that close, and this particular comet may never pass close to Earth again.

“Every time these Oort cloud comets reach the inner solar system, the planets have an opportunity to push or pull them with gravity. And this one, in particular, may never return, there’s a small chance that it could be kicked out of the solar system,” Kelley said.

Although you may not be able to see the comet’s greenish hue with the naked eye or even with binoculars, amateur astronomers have captured stunning images of its emerald glow.

Kelley compared a comet to a “wide space snowball” made up of dust and ice. The ice turns to gas, forming a cloud of gases around the comet, called a coma.

“This nice green color comes from the gas around the comet,” Kelley said.

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