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A comet is about to pass by Earth for the first (and last) time in 50,000 years
Don't forget to wave.
What would you do if you found out an asteroid was barreling toward Earth, and you only had three weeks to live? That’s the question asked in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. When Dodge and Penny (Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, respectively) team up for one last road trip before the end of the world, we learn there’s a certain amount of freedom that comes along with the terror, at the end. At the same time, a previously unseen object showing up in our neck of the woods can be all the more exciting if it’s not threatening the survival of our species. Impactors are sort of like wild animals in that way, we like seeing them from a distance, but getting too close is a good way to figure out what date to put on your headstone.
On the first of February, we’ll rub cosmic shoulders with just such an object, a recently discovered comet which hasn’t visited our planet for 50,000 years. Comet 2022 E3 (C/2022 E3 for short) was discovered March 2, 2022 by Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin using the Zwicky Transient Facility at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. The object is incredibly dim, coming in at about 25,000 times fainter than the background stars we can easily see with the naked eye. Of course, its apparent brightness will increase as it gets closer.
At first, astronomers believed they had discovered an asteroid, but continued observations revealed a small coma, identifying it as a comet. Those additional observations also allowed astronomers to calculate its orbit and run it in reverse to figure out the last time it was in town, roughly 50,000 years ago. For comparison, Neptune has the longest orbit of any planet in our system, coming in at about 165 years, while Pluto’s orbit is so long — 248 years — that it completed less than a third of a single circuit between discovery and reclassification.
The last time C/2022 E3 visited this part of the solar system, modern humans were just migrating out of Africa, and we weren’t alone. At that time we were still living alongside other types of humans including Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis (commonly called hobbits), and Denisovans. A lot has changed since then, for us and for C/2022 E3. Since its last pass through this region, its orbit has shifted, and astronomers expect this will be the last time the comet will pass by. The most recent orbital measurements indicate C/2022 E3 is on a parabolic path. Once it passes the innermost part of its orbit on Jan. 12, the Sun’s gravity will fling it on an open path that will never come back around.
On its way back out of the solar system it will pass by Earth at a distance of about 28 million miles, more than a hundred times the distance to the Moon. But that’s close enough that you might be able to catch a glimpse of it with binoculars or a telescope before it leaves for good. Provided you have the right equipment, clear weather, and dark skies, you can point your eyes to the heavens between now and the first week or so of February, in the vicinity of the constellation Corona Borealis.
At the time of this writing, the comet is visible during the early morning, but once it swings around the Sun next week, it will become visible at night and should get brighter every day until Feb. 1. That’s if it doesn’t break up between now and then. Some have even speculated that it could get bright enough at its peak to be visible to the naked eye from dark sky locations.
Even if you don’t have your own telescope, you can get your eyes on C/2022 E3, thanks to the Virtual Telescope Project, which will livestream the comet during its closest approach with the Sun and with Earth.
In the meantime, you can watch another uninvited celestial object careen toward our planet in Asteroid vs. Earth, now streaming on Peacock.