So a “once in a lifetime” comet is “lighting up” or even “streaking across” the night sky. Yeah, really? So go outside and have a look. Can’t find it? No, you won’t. That’s because comet 2022 E3 (ZTF)—the so-called “green comet”—is indeed in the northern hemisphere’s night sky, but its faint photons are so faint that they’re not going to get anywhere near your eyes unless you have time, patience and … binoculars.
Even then, comet 2022 E3 (ZHF) will be just a smudge.
There are ways to see the best comet since 2020’s comet NEOWISE before it fizzles out in early February, but behind the wild clickbait headlines there are cold, hard truths about comet 2022 E3 (ZTF).
Here are seven things you need to know about the comet to better help you navigate the weird world of comet-hunting (and comet-hype):
1. Ignore the incredible photos on social media
Those photos that you see on social media and all over the web of comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) are taken using telescopes and cameras. Both of which are a lot more sensitive than the human eye. Astrophotography is largely done by taking multiple images of objects and stacking them together to increase contrast, brightness and color. In reality this comet is very faint—so far. It’s shining at a magnitude of about 6, which makes it visible to the naked eye only under extremely dark skies. In fact, the kind of dark skies that most people have never ever experienced. So you can forget all about seeing this, it with your naked eyes, particularly if you live in any kind of urban environment.
2. The hype has come too early
Despite comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) being incredibly faint, it does appear to be brightening, albeit more slowly than had been predicted. Currently on the cusp of naked eye visibility in dark skies, it is presently getting slightly closer to our planet as it exits the inner solar system. It will reach its closest point to Earth (at 26 million miles) on February 2, by which it’s just possible that it will be bright enough to see with the naked eye. However, that seems unlikely.
3. You need binoculars to glimpse the comet
Since you cannot see this comet with the naked eye you are going to need a pair of binoculars. Sure, you can also use a small telescope, but unless you have a motorized GoTo telescope that can be automatically pointed at its coordinates, binoculars are the way to go. A pair of 10×50 or 10×42, or similar, are perfect. The best way to find the comet this week is to locate the Big Dipper in the northern night sky—late at night when it’s on its side with its handle pointing down towards the horizon. Locate the final two stars in that handle, Mizar and Alkaid. Put your binoculars on the stars and range them left. Look around this area and, with some luck, you will find a comet. Be prepared to say something no amateur astronomer ever wants to hear from a non-stargazer—“is that it?” and wonder what all the unnecessary hype is for.
4. You’ll need sky-charts to find it
If those general directions don’t get you anywhere then you’re going to need to resort to sky charts. Sky and Telescope has some fantastic sky charts to help you manually find the comet while Sky Live has its coordinates to punch into a GoTo telescope. As you can see by looking at the sky charts, the comet is currently moving north as it brightens, soon passing the North Star, Polaris, as it heads towards Capella (Feb. 5), and then Mars (Feb. 10-12). That is went to start looking for comet 2022 E3 (ZTF)!
5. It looks like a tiny smudge
Is it worth you spending a lot of time outside in freezing cold temperatures looking for this comet? If you have high expectations, then no, it is not. If you do manage to get eyes-on with the comet through a pair of binoculars or using a small telescope then probably your best view will be of a rather faint smudge of light. Sure, it will look different to a star, open cluster or galaxy, but it’s probably not going to impress you. That is, unless you are an amateur astronomer with all the gear, bags of time and patience, and a desire to see distant cosmic visitors with your own eyes.
6. Saying ‘green comet’ is like saying ‘black and white zebra’
Yes, photographs of comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) do show it to be green. Comets have a nucleus and a coma, the latter being a cloud of gas the envelopes the nucleus. It’s the coma that’s green and that’s typical for comets. So the “green comet” name is a bit like saying “black and white zebra.” Besides, you won’t see anything green if you get eyes-on with comet 2022 E3 (ZTF). Just black and white.
7. Ignore the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ and ‘last chance to see’ claims
Headline writers are being extremely economical with language in promoting this comment. It’s not a lie to say that comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) was last in the Earth’s night sky during the Stone Age nor is it inaccurate to state that this is our last chance to see it. However, that applies to almost all comets! Sure, 50,000 years is a long period comet, but it’s no more “last chance” that anything else unique that happens.
Why to ignore the hype about comet 2022 E3 (ZHF)
The upshot is this: if you are a casual stargazer who only wants to see the very best and brightest objects and events in the night sky, then forget almost everything you have read about comet 2022 E3 (ZTF). Wait until early February when comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) might—just might—be bright enough to see naked-eye. Right now it’s too early for most people to go looking for a faint smudge in the northern sky.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.