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spaceSpace and Physics

Earth Is About To See An Object Last Seen During The Time Of Neanderthals

Grab your binoculars, it's making its closest approach to the Sun tonight.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockDec 29 2022, 16:13 UTC
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A comet streaking through the sky.

A young comet captured by Hubble in 2019. Image credit: NASA/Hubble

If you look up into the sky over the next couple of months, you can see an object last seen when Neanderthals walked the Earth. In fact, if you get out your binoculars or telescope, you might see it make its closest approach to the Sun tonight. 

On March 2, 2022, astronomers at the Zwicky Transient Facility discovered a comet using a wide-field survey camera. The comet, dubbed a tongue-rolling C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is estimated to complete an orbit of the Sun once every 50,000 years, meaning the last time humans saw the comet was in the Upper Paleolithic period, when humans began to expand throughout Asia and Europe.

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The comet is currently on its approach to perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun), which will occur on January 12 when it will come within 160 million kilometers (100 million miles) of our star. It currently cannot be seen without a telescope.

However, it may be possible to see with the naked eye at the start of February, when it makes its closest pass by Earth on February 2. Though, as Sky at Night points out, it will likely look like a smudge of chalk dust on a chalkboard rather than the dazzling display put on by comet Leonard

The comet, first believed to be an asteroid before the coma was observed, was discovered using a telescope that at 1.2 meters (4 feet) is around the size of Hervé Villechaize, who played evil henchman Nick Nack in the Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun. It will safely pass Earth at a distance of about 42 million kilometers (26 million miles), or 36,667 million Hervé Villechaizes.

If you can’t see it where you are tonight, the Virtual Telescope Project will be hosting a livestream of the comet beginning at 11 pm EST on January 12 (4 am GMT on January 13).  

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An earlier version of this article was published in December 2022. 


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