A newly discovered bright green comet is on its way past Earth for a once-in-a-lifetime show, and it may be visible to the naked eye.
The comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), was discovered in March 2022 and is passing through our solar system. The icy celestial object has gotten brighter and brighter as it nears the sun, building up excitement from astronomers and skywatchers alike.
Comets are "cosmic snowballs" of dust, rock and ice. They heat up as they near the sun, taking on a stunning glow and spewing a tail of dust and gas that can stretch millions of miles.
NASA says the bright green comet has a short, broad tail of dust and a long, faint ion tail. You can't see it without a telescope yet, but a few astronomers have nabbed stunning photos as it continues its voyage.
It will soar past the sun Jan. 12, making its closest approach to Earth around Feb. 2. NASA says those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will find the comet in the morning sky as it heads northwest this month. It'll be visible in the Southern Hemisphere as well in February.
It's hard to predict a comet's brightness, but NASA astronomers say this one is promising. If it follows its current trends in brightness, it'll be easy to spot with binoculars and might even become visible to the naked eye under dark skies. Even so, it'll be faint — observers with binoculars or telescopes have the best chance.
"This comet isn't expected to be quite the spectacle that Comet NEOWISE was back in 2020," NASA explains. "But it's still an awesome opportunity to make a personal connection with an icy visitor from the distant outer solar system."
While the comet's closest approach is at the start of February, that may not be your best chance to see it. If it's your first time looking for a comet, EarthSky recommends trying on Feb. 10 when it appears close to Mars. The site also has finder maps and descriptions of where to look.
EarthSky says Northern Hemisphere observers will be able to see the comet — albeit with a telescope — through April 2023.
For now, it's unclear exactly where our "icy visitor" has been and where it's going next.
"If C/2022 E3 has ever passed through the solar system before, it would have last been seen in the sky more than 10,000 years ago," Jon Giorgini, a senior analyst at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told NPR. Since C/2022 E3 is so newly discovered, there's still a lot astronomers have to learn.