Fifty thousand years later, historic comet visible over Vancouver Island again

Fifty thousand years later, historic comet visible over Vancouver Island again
Photo credit: NASA
For the first time in 50,000 years, Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) will be visible above Vancouver Island — but likely not to the naked eye, according to experts.

It’s a seldom sight 50,000 years in the making.

A dazzling comet emitting hues of green not seen for centuries is sparking across the skies and should be most visible to Vancouver Islanders later this month and in early February, according to a University of Victoria professor.

Karun Thanjavur, an astronomy lab instructor, tells CHEK News that the comet, known as C/2022 E3 (ZTF), has already been spotted in the early morning but likely not to the naked eye, so stargazers should use a telescope or binoculars to see it for themselves.

“Soon, it’ll be fairly high up, and it’s travelling westward across the sky. If people know the big dipper, it’ll be somewhere around there. It’ll be at its closest approach to the earth later this month, Jan. 21 and onwards,” Thanjavur said.

Last month, astronomers at NASA captured a telescopic image of the comet and, in a subsequent online post, said it would be closest to earth on Feb. 1.

By then, the comet should be visible for most of the night but still fairly faint to the naked eye, so, along with the proper gear, Thanjavur recommends finding a dark place area away from city lights to catch a glimpse.

“Five or six days, about a week or so, it’ll be at its best,” he said.

“Any comet catches our attention right away. It’s just a very spectacular object in the sky, for sure,” said Thanjavur in an interview, noting astronomers have been tracking this particular comet since last year.

“The comet was discovered about a year ago, in March 2022. A wide-field survey camera discovered it. Astronomers noticed the comet, thought it was an asteroid, then confirmed it was a comet. The comet’s been known for a while,” according to Thanjavur.

“This comet, because they have been tracking it for almost a year, they know what its orbit looks like. They think the last time this particular comet passed by the sun was tens of thousands of years ago, about 50,000 years ago.”

Yet comet sightings aren’t necessarily rare. 

“About two years ago, there was a very spectacular comet called Neowise. It was visible in the night sky in Victoria. I wouldn’t call it a very rare comet, but comets are very beautiful objects to look at in the sky,” recalled Thanjavur.

This time, C/2022 E3 onlookers may notice some particles following in its path — “a dust trail,” the professor explains.

“As it comes closer to the sun, the sun’s radiation starts evaporating the comet. It’s just a frozen chunk of ice and dust, so it gets evaporated by the sun’s radiation. The frozen gas, once it vaporizes, it’s excited by the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This time, it’s greenish because it’s molecules of carbon,” said Thanjavur.

But it’ll likely come and then go — forever.

“The current prediction is that this comet may be unbounded in its current orbit and leave the solar system altogether. So it’ll never come back. So this may be a one-time deal,” added Thanjavur.

“That makes it a little bit more unique.”

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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