The green comet flies over the Gulf region

A rare green comet passed through our solar system for the first time in 50,000 years, and over the weekend, Gulf area Stargazers have the best chance of spotting it in the night sky.

The comet, dubbed C/2022 E3 (ZTF), was the first Discover Jupiter was orbited last March by astronomers Frank Massey and Bryce Paulin at Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, and is named after the Zwicky transit facility where it was located. The comet made its closest approach to the sun on January 12, and is now on a path to bring it closest to Earth — about 27 million miles away — on February 2.

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

Leenam watched the comet from the observatory around 9 p.m. Wednesday, and he recommends people look for it by scanning the northeastern night sky between the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.

“What I observed with cheap binoculars,” he said, “was an extended, diffuse object more diffuse than a star, and a little brighter.” “It looked like a lady’s hand fan that was open at an angle of just under 90 degrees.”

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

“It is already known that comets change their appearance very quickly from night to night,” Lynam said. “If you’re able to see it, you might realize it’s moving relative to the stars in the background, and if you’re lucky, you might see the shape — the shape and structure of the tail.”

The comet may appear to have two tails — one made of gas and one made of particles, said Gerald McKegan, an astronomer at Chaput Space and Science Center in Oakland. He thinks there’s still a chance observers “in very dark sky locations far from city lights” might be able to see without visual aids between now and the first few days of February. After that, the comet will remain in the night sky, but it will become increasingly difficult to see from the United States as it moves over the Southern Hemisphere.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in the sky of Molvetta, Italy, just before sunrise around 6 a.m. on January 24, 2023. It last passed by Earth 50,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were still living 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 shade Green color A carbon-based compound that reacts with ultraviolet light in the atmosphere, which then decomposes and produces bicarbonate, a color-emitting molecule. However, observers shouldn’t expect the comet to bounce across the sky in vibrant, shamrock-colored colors, David Prosper, director of the Night Sky Network at the Pacific Astronomical Society in San Francisco, told SFGATE.

“The funny part is that while it’s called a green comet, the color isn’t really noticeable unless you get some good zoom on it,” said Prosper, who is also the director of the NASA Night Sky Network. “People seem to report a specific green color when viewed through telescopes of 6 inches or more in diameter, but everyone’s eyes are different. Pictures show green easily.”

Unfortunately, a number of factors can affect the comet’s visibility. The moon is expected to become increasingly bright over the next week, Prosper told SFGATE, and Dalton Behringer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the scattering of stratospheric clouds as well as the chance of rain could hinder observers on Saturday and Sunday night.

“If people are really trying to see it, they can go to higher terrain and go beyond the cloud layer,” Behringer said.

However, Thursday and Friday nights may be your best bet. Later this weekend, stargazers might have more luck heading to the Chabot Space and Science Center, which plans to host a free telescope show from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday nights, and again on the 3rd and Feb 4. Amateur astronomers in San Francisco 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 as one of the brightest lights in the western sky — you can even catch a glimpse of the four moons orbiting the planet if you have binoculars. Mars will also be visible, emitting bright orange or red light.

Whatever you might find among the stars, it’s worth taking a look, because a comet’s orbit is unpredictable and it can be thousands of years before it returns, if it happens at all.

“We can’t say definitively what the comet’s orbit will be. It could come in once and be kicked out of our solar system completely,” Lynam said. “It could take thousands of years, or it might never come back.”

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