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Bright Green Comet Dazzles as It Passes Earth on 50,000-Year Journey

The comet, expected to be the brightest of 2023, has been seen sporting a rare "anti-tail."

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF on Feb. 1. 
Imran Sultan/Northwestern University

Now's the time to look for Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) as it puts on a show while leaving Earth in its rearview.

The Zwicky Transient Facility, aka ZTF, in Southern California discovered the dramatic object in March. It had been speeding in the direction of the sun up until Jan. 12, when it reached perihelion, its closest pass by the sun, before beginning a long journey back to the Oort Cloud on the edge of the solar system.

According to Joe Rao from both Space.com and New York's Hayden Planetarium, it won't return for roughly 50,000 years. This makes now the prime time to try to see it for yourself.

NASA says it should be visible from dark locations with minimal light pollution.

The space agency says the comet is expected to be closest to Earth on Thursday as a magnitude five object, just bright enough to see with the unaided eye, though binoculars and very dark skies always help. 

Even as ZTF continues to speed back out toward deeper space, it may still be visible for a few more nights or longer. 

The behavior of comets is rather unpredictable, as they can brighten, dim or completely disintegrate with little warning. Comet ZTF's coma, or tail, has already been observed appearing to split into two distinct tails in what astronomers call a "disconnection event."

It's also been seen sporting a so-called "anti-tail," which is actually an optical illusion that makes the comet appear to have a tail on both sides of its nucleus. 

You can practice trying to spot the comet now with binoculars or a backyard telescope as it continues to (hopefully) brighten. By far the easiest way to locate it is with a site like In The Sky or the excellent mobile app Stellarium

If you happen to get any great photos, please share them with me on Twitter, @EricCMack