A comet last seen by the Neanderthals is approaching Earth and could be seen by the naked eye sometime at the end of January and the beginning of February 2023.
The comet, dubbed “C/2022 E3 (ZTF)” was discovered by astronomers in February 2022. It is currently too dim to be seen without a telescope.
The comet is estimated to complete an orbit of the Sun once every 50,000 years, meaning the last time we saw the comet was in the Upper Paleolithic period when humans began to expand throughout Asia and Europe.
C/2022 E3 (ZTF) 2022 dec 28 4.30 UT 25x100sec 12"/4 Nikon Z6mod Michael Jäger pic.twitter.com/znxHNlZGe6
— Michael Jäger (@Komet123Jager) December 28, 2022
The comet is currently on its approach to perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun), which will occur on January 12. It will be closest to Earth – known as at perigee – on February 1.
It will safely pass the Earth at a distance of about 44 million kilometers (27 million miles).
Around this point, it may be visible to the naked eye, though Sky at Night points out it would likely look like a smudge of chalk dust on a chalkboard rather than the dazzling display put on by comet Neowise.
The brightest comet to approach Earth was Neowise in 2020
In the summer of 2020, Neowise made a spectacular approach toward Earth.
Neowise is known for being the brightest comet in the northern hemisphere since Comet Hale–Bopp in 1997.
It was widely photographed by professional and amateur observers and was even spotted by people living near city centers and areas with light pollution.
While it was too close to the Sun to be observed at perihelion, it emerged from perihelion around magnitude 0.5 to 1, making it bright enough to be visible to the naked eye.
Under dark skies, it could be seen with the naked eye and remained visible to the naked eye throughout July 2020. By July 30, the comet was about magnitude 5, when binoculars were required near urban areas to locate the comet.