The Himalayan Chandra Telescope on the foothills of Mount Saraswati in Ladakh's Hanle has captured the first images of a newly discovered comet that last arrived in the skies above Earth about 60,000 years ago. At the time, Neanderthals, our ancient ancestors, roamed the planet.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was photographed by astronomers using the Himalayan Chandra Telescope, which is operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru. The comet is currently traveling through the inner planets on its way to the Sun and is expected to reach orbit on January 12.
Astronomers expect that the comet will be visible in the skies above Earth in the early week of February and could be seen with the naked eye if it glows at a higher magnitude. "This comet will pass closest to the Sun on 12 Jan & may be visible to the naked eye by early February. It is a very rare occasion as the comet will come back after 50,000 years!" the Department of Science & Technology said in a tweet.
The image was captured when the telescope was tracking the fast-moving comet, and the background stars appear to move in a trail. IIA released three images of the comet that were taken serially and then stacked together. The individual images were taken in red, green, and blue filters by astronomers Margarita Safonova, Mulchand Kurre & Bharat Chandra.
Comets consist mostly of ice coated with dark organic material. They have been referred to as dirty snowballs and may yield important clues about the formation of our solar system.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was first discovered in March last year by the wide-field survey camera at the Zwicky Transient Facility when it was already inside the orbit of Jupiter. While it was initially believed to be an asteroid, it began developing a tail as the Sun's influence began vaporizing the ice. At the time of its discovery, it was shining with a magnitude of 17.3.
The comet, according to data gathered by telescopes, has a period of around 50,000 years and it last came in the skies above Earth during the Upper Paleolithic period, a time when Neanderthals roamed the planet and early homo sapiens had just come around.