Comet ZTF visible to the naked eye since this weekend

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, coming from the confines of the solar system, has been visible to the naked eye since this weekend. DAN BARTLETT / AFP

For the first time in 50,000 years, comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, coming from the confines of the solar system, is observable in France until the beginning of February.

It had been expected for 50,000 years. Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, coming from the confines of the solar system, has been visible to the naked eye since this weekend. This small, rocky, icy body was discovered in March 2022 by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) sky program which operates the Samuel-Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California. Its last passage so close to the Earth dates back to the Paleolithic period and the Neanderthals. Astronomy enthusiasts will be able to observe this extremely rare celestial object until the beginning of February. It should in fact pass as close as possible to the earth (i.e. 42 million km), around February 1. Le Figaro guides you to try to locate this luminous star.

What does ZTF look like?

When a comet approaches the Sun, the ice contained in its nucleus sublimates and lets out a long trail of dust reflecting the light of the Sun. It is this shiny hair, nicknamed coma, that can be observed from Earth. The small rocky body, estimated to be about 1 km in diameter, was detected as it passed through Jupiter’s orbit. It then headed towards the Sun until it reached its perihelion, that is to say its closest point to the Sun, on January 12. The celestial object was then “10% further” from the Sun than is the Earth (about 150 million km), Nicolas Biver, of the Paris-PSL Observatory, told AFP.

ZTF will be at the peak of its brilliance “when it will be closest to the Earth”, said Thomas Prince, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, to AFP. The celestial body is green in color because the ultraviolet rays of the Sun have been absorbed by a molecule of the comet, diatomic carbon, specifies the American daily, the New York Times . This reaction gives its particular color to ZTF and makes it, in fact, more recognizable.

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How to observe it?

If it is easier to spot the comet thanks to a pair of binoculars or a telescope, it will however be visible to the naked eye during the night under a sky without too much Moon and, of course, free from light pollution. Eric Lagadec, astrophysicist at the Observatory of the Côte d’Azur, specialist in stardust, advises on his Twitter account to observers to move away “cities and light pollution” to take advantage of the phenomenon.

The specialist specifies that ZTF will “to pass between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper” and therefore it is necessary “seek an unobstructed view to the north”. The best viewing window is this week, experts say. It should be closest to Earth in early February before plunging into the southern hemisphere and heading back to the outer reaches of the solar system.

When is his return?

According to current models, comets come from two reservoirs: the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, or the Oort cloud, a vast theoretical zone located up to a light year from the Sun, at the limit of its gravity field. “According to the inclination of the plane of its orbit, it would be a long-period comet originating initially from the Oort cloud”, according to Nicolas Biver, from the Paris-PSL Observatory. During its previous passage close to the Sun, 50,000 years earlier, the icy visitor had then left in the other direction, but without going as far as the Oort cloud. This time she could be “definitely ejected from the solar system”.

Scientists will therefore take advantage of what could be his last visit to try to better understand the composition of comets, thanks to observations from the James Webb Space Telescope. “We will observe it from every angle. It’s not the comet of the century, but we’re happy to be able to observe comets like these every one or two years, because we consider them to be remnants of the formation of the solar system.”, detailed Nicolas Biver. This “rare visitor” will bring “information about the “inhabitants” of our solar system far beyond the most distant planets”, for his part added to AFP, Thomas Prince, of the California Institute of Technology.

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