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Comet ZTF Growing in Glow, May Become Visible on Washington / Oregon Coast

Published 01/06/23 at 5:39 PM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Comet ZTF Growing in Glow, May Become Visible on Washington / Oregon Coast

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(Seaside, Oregon) – Wishing upon a star as you're hanging out on the Oregon coast or Washington coast is simply de rigueur if those ethereal, beachside skies clear up. But what if you could wish upon a moving, glowing and fuzzy star? (Photo Michael Jaeger on January 4, 2023 @ Jauerling, Austria)

Chancing are increasing the Pacific Northwest along with the rest of the northern hemisphere will get to see Comet 2022 E3 ZTF with our unaided eyes in early February, a luminous solar system wanderer that has a green atmosphere. It's been in this neighborhood before, too – some 50,000 years ago.

Comet 2022 E3 ZTF is most certainly visible now with the aid of telescopes or binoculars, but it may well become more than that.

Jim Todd, astronomy expert with Portland's OMSI, told Oregon Coast Beach Connection it keeps growing in brightness.

Comet ZTF Growing in Glow, May Become Visible on Washington / Oregon Coast
Comet Neowise, photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection

“Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will reach perihelion, its closest point to the sun, in January,” Todd said. “On February 2, it will reach its closest point to Earth. January and February are prime times to view this fuzzy, icy visitor from the outer solar system. The comet could still reach the realm of unaided eyes from a dark-sky site, by the end of this month.

This cosmic interloper has a period of 50,000 years, according to NASA. That means the last time Earth people saw it was way back in what is known as the Upper Paleolithic period on Earth. Homo sapiens – us – was just starting to thrive but neanderthals were still around in fair abundance as well.

They were not where the Oregon coast or Washington coast is now, back when it was still an Ice Age. But those visiting the beaches here now have a chance to see it, though it shows up in the eastern sky in the morning, and that may pose problems with Oregon Coast Range or Willapa Hills getting in the way for awhile.

Star map created by OMSI

“From Portland, before sunrise, low above the eastern horizon the Comet ZTF is in the constellation Corona Borealis (map),” Todd said. “During its closest approach to Earth, it will appear near the north celestial pole and be located within the constellation Camelopardalis. On February 10 and 11, the comet will pass 1.5 degrees from Mars, and on February 13 to 15 will pass in front of the Hyades star cluster.”

He told Oregon Coast Beach Connection he's hopeful for this chance.

“When we do get good clear viewing, will be able to watch it,” he said. “Keep in mind, best viewing around will be near New Moon since it is around 6th magnitude.”

A full moon happens January 6 and February 5, he said, which will diminish comet viewing.

“The new moon will be on January 21 and February 19 - best times to view the comet,” he said.

Astronomers say Comet ZTF has a bright green atmosphere, a tail that is made of dust with a fan shape, and a gaseous blue streamer sculpted by the solar wind into a narrow plume more than 3 degrees long.

“Experienced observers say it is about as bright as a 7th magnitude star, invisible to the naked eye, but an easy target for backyard telescopes,” he said.

Scientists say it's not a guarantee it will be visible with the naked eye. While it is growing steadily more brilliant, there's always a possibility it could start to fade. However, it's been photographed with telescopic equipment now for awhile, and it will definitely remain so for another few months.

The comet won't make the spectacle that Neowise did two years ago, where photogs on the Oregon coast and Washington coast snapped some insanely cool images. When coastal skies get clear out here, they can be jaw-dropping with the lack of light pollution in that region.

Scientists think the comet came from the Oort Cloud, a very distant area of the solar system that is packed with icy space debris.

See more in this gallery.

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Bandon at night, courtesy Manuela Durson - see Manuela Durson Fine Arts for more

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Coastal Spotlight

Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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