Once in a lifetime green comet visible for first time in 500,000 years

ESA captures Comet 96P/Machholz at perihelion

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A green comet that has not been visible for at least 50,000 years is flying past earth in a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon gracing the skies this week. Officially called Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the comet made its nearest approach to Earth in the early hours of February 1, around 42 million kilometres (26 million miles) away from Earth. While the nearest approach has past, the super-rare event can still be seen by eager stargazers hoping to catch a glimpse as the comet lingers for the rest of the week.

It has already been providing spectacular views for some lucky spectators. Photographs snapped by astronomers show a green hue surrounding the body of the comet, which had a brightness value of the magnitude of about +4.7.

This means it is right at the threshold of being visible to the naked eye. But to ensure you catch the clearest view of the comet that was last visible when mammoths roamed the Earth, you must not be where it is too cloudy or where there’s too much light pollution.

Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, told BBC News: “You might have seen these reports saying we’re going to get this bright green object lighting up the sky. Sadly, that’s not going to be anything like the case.”

However, in clear conditions, stargazers are certainly in with a shot of catching a stunning view if they use binoculars. Mr Massay added that you might be able to see a “hint of the tail coming off it, so it’ll look more like a classic comet”.

To find it, it is advised to first search for the pole star, which always remains in the same fixed place in the sky. You can find this by looking directly north and locating a star that hangs distinctly by itself.

You can then use free planetarium software online to work out where the comet will be moving in relation to the pole star on the night you’re looking at it. The comet is set to be visible in the northern hemisphere every night this week.

The best time to catch a clear glimpse is reportedly the early hours of Thursday morning, when the Moon has set.

The green comet was discovered in March 2022, largely attributed to astronomers Bryce Bolin and Frank Masci, at the Palomar Observatory in California.

While it was first thought to be an asteroid, the space rock’s condensed coma – a nebulous envelope – revealed that it was a comet.

It was spotted in a twilight survey by the Caltech-led project the Zwicky Transient Facility.

For the survey, ZTF uses a camera to snap pictures almost every 30 seconds through the Palomar Observatory’s forty-eight-inch telescope.

Machine-learning algorithms are used to detect moving objects in the sky by analysing these images.

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Tom Prince, one of the lead scientists on the project, told The New Yorker: “On March 2nd, all we knew was that we had found a moving object. We reported it to the Minor Planet Center – they are the clearing house for these things.”

According to NASA, the green coming that has been whizzing towards over the last month has at least three tails. As well as a common dust tail present in many comets, it also has an ion tail, a green gas coma and a rare distinctive anti-tail. This is an apparent spike projecting from a comet’s coma towards the Sun.

Comets are mainly made up of ice and dust. As they approach the Sun, the ice gets vaporised and the dust shakes off to form the long tail. This green comet originally came from the Oort cloud, a collection of icy bodies at the edge of the Solar System.

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