How to Find and Photograph Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF: Your Once in a 50,000 Year Chance

How to Find and Photograph Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF: Your Once in a 50,000 Year Chance

Astrophotographers and even regular photographers have a chance at a comet that is now appearing in our early morning, pre-dawn skies. I'm talking about Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, rapidly approaching its closest encounter with our sun. It hasn't been to our part of the solar system for about 50,000 years. It's a striking green in color, and not all comets are, so it's created a stir among astrophotographers.

It could be the first naked eye comet since Neowise, which graced our night skies in the summer of 2020.

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF was discovered in March of last year by the f/2.4 Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar. It was very dim then, but as it approaches the sun it is steadily brightening. 

Where Is C/2022 E3 ZTF?

For the next couple of weeks, observers in the Northern Hemisphere can spot it in the Northeastern sky. The BBC Website has some good info on finding the comet.

Look for the comet above the northeastern horizon after midnight between the constellations of Hercules and Bootes.

By the third week of January, the comet will become circumpolar for mid-northern latitude viewers. Then, the comet will be visible after sunset and all night long for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere. On January 29, it will pass close to Polaris, the North Star. If it brightens up to say, the 5th magnitude, it should be visible to naked eye observers away from city lights. 

By February, the Moon will be growing brighter, making observations difficult. Here's a chart from NASA that will help you locate the comet.

If you want to capture it, you can probably do it with a medium to long lens (80-200mm) because the object is small. Don't expect a dramatic tail on the comet, but that could change. You're looking for basically a smudge.

Capturing the Comet

If you're going to give the comet a go in the Northern Hemisphere, try around the 25th of this month, after 10 pm. The moon won't interfere on that date. Using the chart below, point your DSLR or mirrorless camera to the area shown that matches the date. You'll want to be at least ISO 400 or higher, but you'll get more noise as the ISO increases. A tripod, of course, will be required. About 15 seconds, is the maximum exposure to avoid star trailing, unless you have a tracking mount.

By some reports, it's approaching Magnitude 7, not a naked eye object, but visible with a longer exposure.

I gave the comet a try on January 13 from Arizona. Sadly, there were a lot of high clouds. 

I wasn't too impressed with what I got by stacking 10 30-second exposures on a tracking mount. There was only a hint of a tail, but I expect the comet to become brighter with more of a tail as the month progresses.

Comets are somewhat unpredictable, so it may get a lot brighter or fade. Still, naked eye comets are rare, and this one won't be back for another 50,000 years, so the next couple of weeks are your only chance.  

If you get some worthwhile shots of our cosmic visitor, please send it along in the comments. Good hunting.

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I haven't done any astrophotography since 2016. But I did capture Comet Lovejoy. It was close and really bright. Made for an easy object to image:

This was taken on 16th Jan '23 from my back garden in Somerset,UK. Captured with a 71mm refractor and dedicated astro camera. This is a stacked image from 150 x 60 second images concentrating on keeping the comet static as it traversed though space.

From Jan 18 07 UT, through an inconvenient annoying veil of aurora.... 200mm short 12 minutes total. Note that most comets that get inside Mars' orbit go green. If they are big dust producers the white overwhelms the green.

Since we're on memory lane, here's my NEOWISE photo. Olympus OM Zuiko 350mm ƒ/2.8 on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Not stacked; single exposure.

I wish I had a tracker to hold my 200-600mm for that far off shot. NEOWISE was real fun for you could see it and get some foreground.

Not to mention the moon was nearly new! The moon is waxing, making this one more challenging.

Snagged it last weekend in a rare cloudless night for this time of year in this area.

Interesting red haze… were you using a filter, or was it crossing a nebula, or…

I haven't done much astrophotography, but decided to give this a shot since the next few nights are supposed to be cloudy. Not a great shot but I'm glad at least I got it in a photo.

Comet C2022 E3 ZTF captured on 30th Jan. '23. Just a few days away from it's closest encounter to Earth and outward bound to return in another 50,000 years

Nice one Roger

Thank you Mel.