Stargazers might spot this comet with just binoculars in January

Look up, stargazers: a comet spotted in Jupiter’s orbit last March is floating through our space neighborhood.

The new comet, officially designated C/2022 E3 (ZTF) by the Minor Planet Center, is a bright ball of ice, dust and rock. Known for their streaks millions of kilometers long, these glacial objects are among the oldest in the solar system and are a holdover from the early days when planets were just forming around Earth.

The comet will be closest to the Sun on January 12 and will pass closest to Earth on February 2, according to NASA astronomers.


NASA’s Hubble confirms the largest comet ever seen

Remember that space is a big place; The comet poses no threat to this planet. Some have estimated that the cosmic boulder will still be 26.4 million miles from its closest.

If you live north of the equator, astronomers recommend spotting the comet in the morning sky before sunrise. It becomes visible in early February in the southern hemisphere.

“Comets are notoriously unpredictable,” said Preston Dyches of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an explainer video. “But if this one continues its current trend in brightness, it will be easy to spot with binoculars, and it’s entirely possible that it will become visible to the naked eye under dark skies.”

“It’s only possible that it’s visible to the naked eye under dark skies.”

A historical illustration depicting the Corona Borealis constellation

This astronomical map from around 1824 shows the constellations Hercules and Corona Borealis.
Photo Credit: Story/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Much brighter than when it was first spotted, the comet is now hurtling across the northern constellation Corona Borealis in the early morning darkness. NASA shared a photo of the comet, taken by an independent astrophotographer on December 19, 2022, showing its greenish sphere, short dust tail, and long, faint gas tail.

“This comet is not expected to be the spectacle that Comet NEOWISE was in 2020,” Dyches said, pointing to the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp to come this way. “But it’s still a great opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the far outer solar system.”

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Winter constellations to look at

The night sky in January is full of sparkles. Looking south or southeast in the first few hours after dark, stargazers in the northern hemisphere could catch some of winter’s biggest hits: Orion the Hunter; the great canine constellation Canis Major; bull the bull; and, just east of Orion, Castor and Pollux, the heads of the Gemini twins.

Planetary Groupings and Conjunctions

Throughout the month, planets seem to squeeze together for family photos, with four visible after each sunset, even without binoculars or a telescope.

  • January 2nd: The Moon and Mars stand high in the southeast, grouped with the stars of the Pleiades and Aldebaran.

  • 18-24 January: Venus crosses paths with Saturn about 45 minutes after sunset in the low southwest. Then, on January 23rd, the crescent moon will make a photo bomb.

  • January 25: About 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, the Moon should encounter Jupiter high above Venus and Saturn. Stargazers might spot this comet with just binoculars in January

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