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What to expect during the green comet's encounter with Earth

The green comet - known as C/2022 E3 (ZTF) - is passing Earth for the first time in about 50,000 years.

What to expect during the green comet's encounter with Earth

A green comet named Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which last passed by our planet about 50,000 years ago and is expected to be most visible to stargazers this week, is seen journeying tens of millions of kilometres away from Earth in this telescope image taken on Jan 28, 2023. (Photo: Reuters/Dan Bartlett/Handout)

A green-hued comet that has been lurking in the night sky for months is expected to be the most visible to stargazers this week as it gradually passes Earth for the first time in about 50,000 years.

The cosmic visitor will swing by our planet at a distance of about 42.5 million km.

Those in Singapore hoping to catch a glimpse of the comet are in luck. It will be visible in the north east direction, Facebook group Stargazing Singapore said in a post earlier this month. 

Binoculars are recommended to view this dim comet and the recommended observation time is from 5.30am until sunrise. 

“The comet is currently in our pre-dawn skies. For the coming mornings this week you'll find it next to the constellation Hercules,” said the group, adding that its closest approach to Earth will be on Feb 1. 

Here is an explanation of comets in general and this one in particular.


Nicknamed "dirty snowballs" by astronomers, comets are balls of ice, dust and rocks that typically hail from the ring of icy material called the Oort cloud at our solar system's outer edge. One known comet actually originated outside the solar system - 2I/Borisov.

Comets are composed of a solid core of rock, ice and dust and are blanketed by a thin and gassy atmosphere of more ice and dust, called a coma. They melt as they approach the sun, releasing a stream of gas and dust blown from their surface by solar radiation and plasma and forming a cloudy and outward-facing tail.

Comets wander toward the inner solar system when various gravitational forces dislodge them from the Oort cloud, becoming more visible as they venture closer to the heat given off by the sun. Fewer than a dozen comets are discovered each year by observatories around the world.

This comet last passed Earth at a time when Neanderthals still inhabited Eurasia, our species was expanding its reach beyond Africa, big Ice Age mammals including mammoths and sabre-toothed cats roamed the landscape and northern Africa was a wet, fertile and rainy place.

The comet can provide clues about the primordial solar system because it formed during the solar system's early stages, according to California Institute of Technology physics professor Thomas Prince.


The green comet, whose formal name is C/2022 E3 (ZTF), was discovered on Mar 2, 2022, by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory in San Diego. Its greenish, emerald hue reflects the comet's chemical composition - it is the result of a clash between sunlight and carbon-based molecules in the comet's coma.

NASA plans to observe the comet with its James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which could provide clues about the solar system's formation.

"We're going to be looking for the fingerprints of given molecules that we can't access from the ground," said planetary scientist Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "Because JWST's so sensitive, we're expecting new discoveries."


Using binoculars during a clear night, the comet can be seen in the northern sky. On Monday (Jan 30), it appeared between the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star. And on Wednesday, it was positioned to appear near the constellation Camelopardalis, bordered by Ursa Major, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.

Finding a remote location to avoid light pollution in populated areas is key to catching a nice view of the comet as it journeys past our planet heading away from the sun and back toward the solar system's outer reaches.

Source: Reuters/CNA/zl


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