PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The rare green comet has been working through the inner Solar System over the last few months and is currently at its closest point to Earth.
Don’t worry though, it will pass a safe 26 million miles from us.
While the comet can be a little tricky to find in the night sky, Southern New England photographers have been capturing pictures that are out of this world.
It is believed that Comet 2022 E3 ZTF, as it is technically known, last passed through our stellar neighborhood during the Stone Age when Woolly mammoths were still lumbering across the landscape and Neanderthals were learning to hunt.
“The best estimate we can come up with is 50,000 years,” Scott MacNeill said.
MacNeill, an astronomer at Brown University’s Ladd Observatory and director of the Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown, said experts determined the long period orbit by making careful observations of the comet’s path.
“It’s like a big snowball in space,” MacNeill said. “You’re looking at a 1 km to 10 km in diameter object of mostly ice. [Comets] are leftover material from when the star formed and the planets formed around the sun.”
The Green Comet moves through space at about 128,500 mph. It is believed to have originated in the Oort Cloud, a collection of trillions of icy objects at the edge of our Solar System.
(Story continues below gallery.)
The comet was discovered while it was near the orbit of Jupiter last March. It will be will be at its closest proximity to Earth on Feb. 2.
The green color is from the break down of carbon molecules within the comet, according to MacNeill.
While it’s hard to see the comet with the naked eye, it’s possible to view it through binoculars or a telescope. This week, the comet will be located just above the North Star.
MacNeill said the comet appears as a “white smudge.” Though difficult to see, MacNeill said it’s worth the effort.
(Story continues below.)
“As we move through February … the comet will be moving into the constellation ‘Auriga’ which will be almost directly overhead at about 7 to 9 o’clock at night,” MacNeill explained.
This may be the last time the Green Comet visits the inner Solar System. That’s because it may get ejected after this pass when it interacts with larger planets like Jupiter and Neptune.
Scientists will be pointing the new James Webb Telescope toward the comet at the end of February to see if anything can be learned from the cosmic visitor.