The world is buzzing with news of an approaching astronomical body, Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), more often referred to in the news and social media as "the green comet." Its most recent appearance was 50,000 years ago — compared to the about 200,000 years since modern humans emerged.
"While the pictures of it have been impressive, its visual appearance differs greatly," explains Joe Wheelock, public program specialist at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin. "Currently you might glimpse it with the unaided eye as a fuzzy patch of light[,] but you would need to be away from city lights. Binoculars or a telescope would improve the view, and you might even glimpse a faint tail."
As tempting as it is — and as much fodder as its made on social media — this experience will not be easy for most Texans to photograph and share. "The pictures that have been posted on various websites were taken by experienced astrophotographers and in most cases cameras designed for astrophotography," Wheelock warns.
Some logistics to note when planning a viewing:
- The comet will be closest to Earth (thus, likely the most visible) on February 1.
- Wheelan says placement will also be good in late January and early February, and it will be best viewed after midnight. Since the new moon was on January 21, every day the moon will compete with it a little more.
- The McDonald Observatory posts daily stargazing tips, so viewers will have a few chances at seeing something special, even if the comment doesn't work out.
- Getting out of Austin is the best bet against light pollution.
Those who are willing to make a trip out of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity should consider their best chances at out running the city lights. The closest popular option to Austin proper (especially for those who live farther North) is Canyon of the Eagles, which hosts an observatory and campsites about 70 miles from the center of Austin. Devil's Cove at Lake Travis and McKinney Falls State Park are less formal, but a popular choice, and generally closer. The McDonald Observatory, although it is an entity of the University of Texas at Austin, is in Fort Davis about 450 miles away.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) maintains records of some of the world's least light-polluted skies and works to protect them, ensuring that these places stay available for reliable stargazing retreats. There are four IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks in Texas: Enchanted Rock (100 miles from Austin), South Llano River (150 miles), Copper Breaks (330 miles), and Big Bend Ranch (520 miles).
In addition to the certified parks, there is a smaller group of Dark Sky Sanctuaries, which are especially dark and carefully protected. There are two in Texas: Devil's River State Natural Area (250 miles) and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (460 miles).