News & Politics

A Green Comet Is Getting Close to Earth. Here’s How You Can See It.

The comet will be the closest to Earth for the first time since the Neanderthals.

Time-lapse image of Comet Lulin at its closest approach to the Earth in 2009. Image by Triphecta via iStock / Getty Images Plus.

On February 2, the same “green comet” that Neanderthals apparently saw 50,000 years ago will be at its most visible on Earth. If you can’t wait, though, you can try to get a glimpse now.

Astronomers have tracked comet C/2022 E3 (Z.T.F.) since March 2022. Comets are collections of dust and ice that leave behind distinctive “tails.” The molecules in the comet determine its color; this one has a green glow, which means it contains cyanogen or diatomic carbon. The color gets brighter the closer the comet gets to the sun.

Elizabeth Warner, manager of the University of Maryland Observatory, says viewers shouldn’t expect to see the photo version of the comet when they look up at the sky with their naked eyes, but binoculars and telescopes will definitely help.

The best chance to see it will be February 1 and 2, when it’s closest to the Earth. (Only 26.4 million miles away.) Pro tip from NASA: look in the morning before dawn for best viewing.

If you have the time, Alan Goldberg from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club suggests Shenandoah National Park’s dark skies as a great viewing spot. Since the park doesn’t have a “must-leave” rule at sunset, observers are free to look all night. He also suggests the Eastern Shore.

To catch the comet without venturing too far, head to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly on January 28. From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., National Air and Space Museum staff and members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will set up telescopes for public viewing and will answer any questions.

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Keely recently graduated with her master’s in journalism from American University and has reported on local DC, national politics, and business. She has previously written for The Capitol Forum.