CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A comet is pointing our way after 50,000 years.
The dirty viper was last visited by Neanderthals, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Mercury’s Earth before it runs again, likely to return for millions of years.
So look, against the title of the killer comet movie “Don’t Look”.
Discovered less than a year ago, this noxious green comet is now visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and perhaps the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere.
It is expected to brighten as it approaches and rises higher on the horizon by the end of January, being most visible in the early morning hours. By February 10, there will be a good border with Mars. Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
While hordes of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems to be probably a little bigger and therefore a little brighter and a little closer to Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.
Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or plume, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was detected last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide-field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.
That means its official, very serious name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
On Wednesday, between the orbits of Earth and Mars it will hit a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its core is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails stretching a million miles.
The comet is not expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid-late 1990s.
But “it shines with the power of a close Earth transit … which allows scientists to do more experiments and allow the public to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.
Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations by placing the comet’s last approach through the solar system to 50,000 years ago.
But they don’t know how close to Earth it came or whether Neanderthals even appeared, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When it comes back, though, it’s harder to judge.
Every time comets circle the sun and planets, their gravitational pull changes the ice’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Other wild cards: bursts of dust and gas flow comets as they heat up near the sun.
“We don’t know exactly how much these are pushing the comet around,” Chodas said.
The comet — the time capsule of the Sun 4.5 billion years ago — came from the known Oort Cloud beyond Pluto. This deep frozen harbor for comets is believed to extend more than one part of the way to the nearest star.
While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If he rises from the solar world, he will never return, he added.
Don’t be jealous if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of them,” said Chodas. “And the next one may be greater, if it is more famous, it may be closer.”
The Associated Press receives a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Science and Media Education Department of the Department of Health and Science. AP is solely responsible for all content.