Keith Connors

Weekdays 10a-3p

Dirty snowball comet flys over Tampa Bay. A comet is making its way back to Earth after 50,000 years, according to NASA. This “dirty snowball” last visited during Neanderthal times and will come within 26 million miles of Earth on Wednesday before speeding away again. Unlikely to return for millions of years, skygazers are encouraged to look up and catch a glimpse of the comet. I use my StarGazer App. It works great!

Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet is already visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly even the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It is expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars. Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month to catch a glimpse.

According to NASA’s comet and asteroid tracking guru, Paul Chodas, “This one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit.” The comet is green due to the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding its nucleus. It was officially named comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) after it was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.

On Wednesday, the comet will hurtle between Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph. Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile across, with tails extending millions of miles. While not expected to be as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid-to-late 1990s, the University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email that “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage…which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet.” So don’t miss your chance to catch a glimpse of this rare and spectacular dirty snowball comet in the night sky. TBT