Go outside on a clear night this week and look north and—if you believe what you read on some websites—you’ll see a bright green comet shooting across the sky. In reality, you will not see anything of the sort. There’s been a lot of hype and wild claims aired online about comet C/2022 E3, but the truth about actually seeing this visitor from the edge of the solar system is rather inconvenient.
Is it possible to see comet C/2022 E3 from your backyard? Absolutely! But only if you have a lot of patience, a decent pair of binoculars or a small telescope, bags of patience and expectations that are really rather low indeed. You also need to wait a few weeks to see it at its brightest.
Inspired by a Facebook post this week by comet expert Alan Hale (joint discoverer of the bright Comet Hale–Bopp in the late 1990s), here are five reasons to be careful when reading about comet C/2022 E3—accompanied by my thoughts on exactly how and when to see it if you’re still enthusiastic about it:
1. This comet is faint
It’s too faint to see with the naked eye. It’s currently reflecting sunlight and appears about magnitude 7, which is just below the cusp for seeing something with the naked eye under ideal dark sky conditions. In short, you’ll need binoculars—just as was needed to see 2020’s comet NEOWISE despite the many awesome-looking long-exposure photos of that icy visitor. When it comes to astrophotography, the camera almost always lies. If you do see Comet C/2022 E3 through binoculars or a small telescope then it will be a smudge, a fuzzy patch.
2. It is not ‘streaking across the sky’
Comet C/2022 E3 will not “streak across the sky” as some claim. Comets don’t do that—that’s “shooting stars,” or meteors, as astronomers call them. It will shift from night to night, but as you observe it, it won’t appear to move in any kind of way that could be described as “streaking.”
3. It’s not a ‘once in a lifetime experience’
I mean, it is—technically speaking—but what comet isn’t? Comet C/2022 E3 has an orbital period of 50,000 years so, yes, it hasn’t visited the solar system since the Stone Age—as some stories state—so of course it’s making its first appearance in recorded history, as others claim. Even a short-period comet is a relatively rare visitor. Halley’s Comet—one of the biggest and best comet of all—rounds the Sun every 75 years (it’s next due back in 2061) while 2020’s relatively bright Comet NEOWISE won’t be back for between 4,400 years and 6,700 years. Given that there are roughly five or so comets at any one time that amateur astronomers point telescopes at, comet C/2022 E3 isn’t particularly rare. It’s relatively bright, but it’s not naked-eye bright.
4. It won’t look green
Sure, it appears to have a green coma and two tails in long exposure photos taken using large telescopes, but even through advanced optics, it’s not going to look green—definitely not through a pair of binoculars. Besides, its coma’s green color is pretty standard fare for comets.
5. It’s worth waiting a few weeks
You could go outside tonight and make a stab at seeing comet C/2022 E3, but my advice is to wait until an hour or so after sunset on Sunday, February 5, 2023. Not only will it have either faded completely or—hopefully—have brightened significantly, but it will be next to the bright star Capella, the brightest in the constellation of Auriga high in the eastern night sky. Get a decent pair of 10×50 binoculars, look due east and go straight up to the zenith—way above the Moon—to Capella. Use a stargazing app to find Capella if you have to.
It’s not going to be ideal observing conditions—the Moon will be annoyingly bright—but at least that means there’s no point hunting out a dark sky site.
If it’s still shining brightly by the weekend of February 10-12 then comet C/2022 E3 will be visible very close to Mars. Put a pair of 10×50 (or similar) binoculars up to Mars and go slightly to the left and you should see it.
All of these inconvenient truths will likely deter a lot of casual sky observers who may want to see a conveniently-placed, easy-to-see and very bright comet, but are not at all interested in a faint and obscure smudge that requires patience.
However, if you are in the 1% who has the kind of patience required to glimpse something from the Oort cloud of comets (about 100,000 times the Earth-Sun distance miles from us) then your timing is good. Between now and February 2, 2023 comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) should get brighter as it passes just 26 million miles from Earth—but my advice is to wait until its apparent close encounters with Capella and Mars.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.