Comet not seen since Ice Age will be visible in Wichita soon. How to get the best view

A newly discovered comet is soaring across the sky and will be closest to Earth Thursday, Feb. 2.

Although astronomers just documented the comet last March, the last time it got this close to Earth was during the Ice Age, according to NASA Jet Propulsion Labs.

While there is no guarantee the comet, C/2022 E3 (ZTF), will be visible without equipment, those who bring binoculars out to a dark area may be able to see it.

“The brightening of comets can be difficult to predict, but even if C/2022 E3 (ZTF) doesn’t brighten enough to become visible with the naked eye, it will still be observable during January and early February with binoculars and small telescopes,” Space.com says.

Depending on the weather, Saturday might be a good time to see the comet, as the moon will be in the new phase.

As of Friday morning, the National Weather Service Wichita office forecasts a slight chance of rain Saturday evening and a slight chance of rain and snow after 9 p.m., gradually ending. It will be mostly cloudy with a low around 28 degrees Fahrenheit, NWS forecast, with a 20% chance of precipitation.

What is a comet?

Comets are “cosmic snowballs” made from frozen gases, rock and dust orbiting the sun, NASA says. They can be the size of a small town when frozen, and heat up and spew gases and dust when they get close to the sun.

“There are likely billions of comets orbiting our Sun in the Kuiper Belt and even more distant Oort Cloud,” NASA’s website says.

The current number of known comets is 3,743, according to NASA.

Stargazing tips

If you’re looking for a good place to stargaze with low light pollution, NASA offers these tips:

  • Head at least 20 to 30 miles from urban areas

  • Try to find a space on the side of a large wilderness area or body of water

  • Look for higher altitude locations

  • Go to an area with open views, such as a lake shore or meadow, so trees don’t interfere with your line of sight

  • Make sure to avoid trespassing

The Lake Afton Public Observatory says the first night to potentially see C/2022 E3 (ZTF) through its telescope during normal business hours will be Jan. 28.

“However, you should be able to view the comet basically any pre-dawn morning between now and some time in February, assuming the comet plays nice and puts on a noticeable tail,” the observatory’s website reads. “While it’s being stated that this is a ‘naked eye’ comet, it will best be viewed by binoculars or a telescope.”

Reservations can be made online for the observatory, but they are not required. Admission is $8 for those 14 years and older, $4 for youth ages 5 to 13 and $7 for adults 65 and older. Immediate family pricing is available for $20.

“You should also know that comets can be pretty diabolical. Their visibility depends almost entirely on their willingness to play along, and they’re not always excited about that,” the Lake Afton Public Observatory says. “We’ve been wow’d and disappointed before. You never know what to expect, but it’s worth it to try to view it because comets can be breathtaking.”

The Lake Afton Public Observatory can be reached at 316-247-0372 with any questions.

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