'It may never come back': Rare green comet visible over the Bay Area tonight

‘It may never come back’: Rare green comet visible over the Bay Area tonight

A rare green comet is passing through our solar system for the first time in 50,000 years, and over the weekend Bay Area astronomers may have the best chance of spotting it in the night sky.

Dubbed C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the comet was first discovered in Jupiter’s orbit last March by astronomers Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, and named a ‘after the Zwicky Transient Facility where she was identified. The comet made its closest approach to the sun on January 12 and is now on a trajectory that will bring it closer to Earth – about 27 million kilometers away – on February 2.

Paul Lynam, an astronomer at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, told SFGATE that it’s unlikely anyone in the Bay Area will be able to see the comet with the naked eye due to light pollution, so a backyard telescope – or ideally a small pair of binoculars, which provide a wider field of view, will come in handy.

Lynam witnessed the comet from the observatory around 9 p.m. Wednesday night and recommends people look for it by scanning the northeast night sky between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

“What I noticed with an inexpensive pair of binoculars was an extended, diffuse object that was more extended than a star and slightly brighter,” he said. “It looked like a female fan opened at a slightly less than 90 degree angle.”

If you can’t see it right away, don’t give up.

“Comets are already known to change their appearance quite rapidly from night to night,” Lynam said. “If you’re able to see it, you can recognize that it’s moving relative to the stars in the background, and if you’re lucky, you can see the morphology – the shape and structure of the tail.”

Gerald McKeegan, an astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, said the comet may even appear to have two tails – one made of gas and one made of particles. He thinks there’s still a chance that observers “in very dark places in the sky away from city lights” could see it without visual aids by the first days of February. After that, the comet will remain in the night sky, but it will become increasingly difficult to see it from the United States as it moves over the Southern Hemisphere.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in the sky over Molfetta, Italy, before sunrise around 6 a.m. on January 24, 2023. It last passed Earth 50,000 years ago, when Neanderthals still lived in our latitudes. The comet was discovered in early March 2022 and was initially thought to be an asteroid.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

The comet gets its namesake green hue from carbon-based compounds that interact with ultraviolet light in the atmosphere, which then break down and produce dicarbon, a molecule that emits the color. However, observers shouldn’t expect the comet to buzz across the sky in a vibrant clover-colored hue, David Prosper, administrator of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Night Sky Network in San Francisco, told SFGATE.

“The funny thing is that even though it’s called the green comet, the color isn’t really noticeable unless you get a good magnification on it,” said Prosper, who is also NASA Night administrator. Sky Network. “It seems people report a definite green color when looking at it through telescopes 6 inches in diameter or larger, but everyone’s eyes are different. Photos easily show the color green.

Unfortunately, a number of factors at play could impact the visibility of the comet. Prosper told SFGATE the moon is expected to get brighter over the next week, and Dalton Behringer, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said scattered to broken stratus and a chance of rain could hamper observers Saturday and Sunday evening.

“If people really try to see it, they might go to higher ground and get past the cloud layer,” Behringer said.

That being said, Thursday and Friday night might be your best bet. Later this weekend, astronomers may have better luck heading to the Chabot Space & Science Center, which plans to host a free telescope viewing from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday evenings, and again February 3 and 4. San Francisco amateur astronomers plan to host a public star party this Saturday from 6-10 p.m. at the Presidio Parade Grounds.

Lynam and McKeegan also suggested looking for Jupiter, which will appear to be one of the brightest lights in the western sky – you can even catch a glimpse of the four moons circling the planet if you have a pair of binoculars. . Mars will also be visible, emitting bright orange or red light.

Regardless of what you might find among the stars, it’s worth taking a look, as the comet’s orbit is unpredictable and it could be thousands of years before it returns, if she is doing it.

“We can’t say for sure what the comet’s orbit will be. It could come in once and be completely kicked out of our solar system,” Lynam said. never come back.”

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