A newly discovered comet could be visible to the naked eye as it passes by Earth and the Sun in the coming weeks for the first time in 50.000 years, they said astronomers.
The comet is named C/2022 E3 (ZTF) by Zwicky Transient Facility, which first spotted it transiting Jupiter in March of last year.
After traveling through the icy regions of our Solar System, it will make its closest approach to the Sun on January 12th and pass closest to Earth on February 1st.
It will be easy to spot with a good pair of binoculars and probably even with the naked eye, provided the sky is not heavily lit by city lights or the Moon.
The comet "will be brighter when it is closer to Earth," Thomas Prince, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who works at the Zwicky Transient Facility, told AFP.
The comet contains ice and dust and emits a greenish aura. It is estimated to be about a kilometer in diameter, said Nicolas Biver, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory.
This makes it significantly smaller than NEOWISE, the last comet visible to the naked eye, which passed Earth in March 2020, and Hale–Bopp, which passed in 1997 with a potential final diameter of about 60 km.
Although the comet will be brighter as it passes closer to Earth in early February, a full moon could make it very difficult to spot.
For the Northern Hemisphere, Biver suggested the last week of January, when the comet will pass between the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.
The new moon over the weekend of January 21-22 offers a good opportunity for astrologers, he said.
"We could also be in for a nice surprise as the comet could be twice as bright as expected," Biver added.
Thomas Prince said another good chance to spot the comet in the sky will be on February 10, when it will pass close by Mars.
Biver said the comet is believed to have originated in the Oort Cloud, a theoretical giant sphere that surrounds the Solar System and is home to mysterious icy objects.
The last time the same comet passed Earth was during the Upper Paleolithic period, when Neanderthals were still roaming around.
Prince said the comet's next visit to the inner Solar System is expected in another 50.000 years.
Biver said there is a possibility that after this visit the comet will be "permanently ejected from the Solar System".
Among those watching the event closely will be the James Webb Space Telescope. However, it will not take images to study the comet's composition, Biver said.
The closer the comet is to Earth, the easier it will be for telescopes to analyze its composition.
This "rare visitor" will give us "information about the inhabitants of our solar system far beyond the most distant planets".