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It hasn't been seen since the Ice Age – here's how to watch the C/2022 E3 green comet in Idaho

comet.jpg
Dan Bartlett/NASA
Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, the newly discovered comet is slated to draw nearest to Earth — 26.4 million miles away to be exact.

Its formal name is C/2022 E3 and it's described as a fuzzy, bright green comet that hasn’t visited the solar system in tens of thousands of years.

“Based on its current orbit, the estimates are roughly, I believe, 50,000-years was the last time that it was flying through the inner solar system,” said Dr. Irwin Horowitz, past president of the Boise Astronomical Society.

“And based on its current trajectory, it's very likely that it may never return again.”

Horowitz visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the best opportunities to see the comet in the coming days and exactly where to point our binoculars or telescopes.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. There is plenty to see this week in the night and early morning skies… Something that hasn't been this close to planet Earth….well, let's just say in quite a while. Dr. Irwin Horowitz is here. His passion is planetary science. He's the past president of the Boise Astronomical Society. Dr. Horowitz, good morning.

DR. IRWIN HOROWITZ: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: First, what can you tell us about this historic comet?

HOROWITZ: Well, there are a number of interesting things about this particular comet First of all, as you noted, it hasn't been in this part of our solar system in a very long time. Based on its current orbit, the estimates are roughly, I believe, 50,000 years was the last time that it was flying through the inner solar system. And based on its current trajectory, it's very likely that it may never return again. The last time it graced our skies, the only potentially sentient people who could observe it were the Neanderthals.

PRENTICE: First of all, would we be able to see it with the naked eye?

HOROWITZ: It is supposed to get just barely visible to the naked eye, if you're at a very dark location with very clear skies. Of course, the problem for us here in Idaho is it's January. The likelihood of finding clear skies in any given night is fairly low. But the other problem, of course, is when we do get clear skies in January, it oftentimes is accompanied with very, very cold temperatures. So going out to observe it is going to be challenging just in terms of the physical discomfort you would experience. But if you're in a very dark site, especially if you're up high in altitude, like up in the Dark sky reserve in central Idaho, that makes it a little easier. And you also want to try to observe it when the moon is not going to interfere.

PRENTICE: So, binoculars… how about that?

HOROWITZ: Binoculars would be better. In fact, they probably are the best item to use if you've got a pair, mainly because binoculars have a nice wide field of view. And so if you're looking in the general direction where the comet is located on any given evening and you see a fuzzy object in your binoculars, and they're nicely focused so that the stars look nice and sharp, then the fuzzy object is almost certainly going to be the comet because most of the fuzzy objects will be fainter than the comet.

PRENTICE: Dr. Horowitz, point us in the right direction. Where should we be looking to see this comet?

HOROWITZ: Well, one of the good things about the comet is where it will be seen in the sky is very close to the North Pole where the north star Polaris is located. It actually is going to be flying between the North Star and the Big Dipper over the next week. So, for example, and I've got my planetarium program up here. Let me just see where we could see it. Quite literally on the 29th of January, weather permitting. If you look between the two pointer stars at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star, which they point towards, the comet, is almost perfectly on a line between them. By 9:00 in the evening. It should be high enough up in the sky that you should be able to see it, according to what I'm seeing on my planetarium program. And then early next month, if we continue on here into February, it is actually going to make a fairly close pass of Mars in I believe it's on the 10th of February.

PRENTICE: Dr. Horowitz, to a layperson, if we are looking at that, how will we identify that as a comet? Will we indicate some movement?

HOROWITZ: It's very doubtful, unless you're using a telescope that you'd be able to observe any actual motion while you're viewing it. But the way you would identify it as a comet is that if you've got your binoculars, for example, nice and focus so that the stars look nice and sharp, it's bright enough that it should be the only fuzzy object that you'd see. And if you see other fuzzy objects, it should be the brightest of the fuzzy objects.

PRENTICE: Bright and fuzzy. Good to know. Let's talk about the Boise Astronomical Society. I'm guessing more than a few people would be interested. What do you do? I have to assume there are events.

HOROWITZ: We have monthly meetings that are held right now on the second Friday of every month. And we also hold monthly star parties, weather permitting, usually either out at Dedication Point, which is about 15 miles south of Kuna. Occasionally we might go up into the mountains past where Idaho City is located. And of course there is the facilities they have at Bruno Dunes State Park with the observatory there and the campground. And we oftentimes go there for one or two star parties each year.

PRENTICE: We are rather blessed here in southern Idaho just based on some of the things you just mentioned.

HOROWITZ: Yes, we are. While the skies aren't particularly dark in the urban areas, it's not that far of a of a drive to find pretty good dark skies from here. Comparing that to, say, the eastern half of the country where finding dark skies is a real challenge or along the West coast where you have all the major cities, you have to travel for several hours to try and get far enough away to get dark enough skies out there.

PRENTICE: What are you looking at lately? I'm curious. You know, when when I reached out to you, you said, “Well, I'm not a morning person because I'm a stargazer. “So, I'm curious. What are you gazing at lately?

HOROWITZ: When I do take the opportunity to look primarily observing the naked eye planets that have been visible this past summer, we've had both Jupiter and Saturn were visible in the southern sky throughout the summer. Right now, Mars is very easy to observe, high up in the evening sky, almost directly overhead in the mid evening hours now. And Venus is becoming starting to become more prominent than the evening sky. If you go out just after sunset and you look to the southwest and you see a bright point of light and it's not moving, so it's not an airplane. It's almost certainly to be Venus.

PRENTICE: Dr. Irwin Horowitz is past president of the Boise Astronomical Society, and it's definitely worth a visit to their website as well. Dr. Horowitz, you got me interested from the get go. Thank you so very much for that. And and thanks so much for giving us some time this morning.

HOROWITZ: Oh, you're welcome, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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