In Our Skies, January 2023: Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)

by Shaphan Shank | Jan 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Comet Neowise and lightning bolt
Comet Neowise 2020. Photo © Cheryl Shank.

If you look over a list of the year’s best meteor showers, the Quadrantid meteor shower will likely catch your attention. First, the Quadrantid shower sits at the top of virtually every chronological list of meteor showers because it peaks in the first few days of January. Second, this shower appears to be one of the best of the year, with a peak rate of about 110 meteors per hour.

But things are not always as they appear. The Quadrantid meteor shower has a very sharp peak, with maximum rates lasting for only a few hours. If you catch that peak, you’ll enjoy a good show. If you miss it, you’ll witness an average display that is reminiscent of smaller showers like the Orionids.

This year’s peak is predicted to occur on the American evening of January 3. Unfortunately, that’s just a few days before Full Moon, so moonlight will interfere with observing the Quadrantids this year.

January and February will bring a number of planetary conjunctions and occultations. The first, a conjunction of Venus and Saturn, will take place on the evening of January 22. The two planets will be visible low in the western sky after sunset, separated by about 20 arcminutes (two-thirds of the Moon’s apparent diameter).

The Moon will occult (pass in front of) Mars around 5:00 UTC (12:00 a.m. EST) on January 31 as seen from the southern United States. The rest of the United States and Canada will get to witness a close conjunction, with Mars passing just north of the Moon.

The Moon will have two more close planetary encounters in February. First it will glide by Jupiter on the evening of the 22nd, passing about 1° from the giant planet. Less than a week later, on the night of February 27–28, the Moon will pass about 0.5° from Mars.

Along with all the “normal” astronomical phenomena, we may be treated to a naked-eye comet in January and February. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which was discovered last March, is on a course that will bring it past Earth around the beginning of February. Keep in mind that the brightness of comets is quite unpredictable, and they frequently appear quite a bit dimmer or brighter than expected. However, the comet has been brightening nicely so far, and current predictions indicate that it may become visible to the unaided eye by mid- to late January. If the comet brightens as expected, it could peak at a brightness of magnitude 4.5–5 (dim but not difficult in a dark sky) around the beginning of February before fading again in early to mid-February.

Unlike most comets, C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will appear far from the Sun during the weeks when it is brightest. In late January, the comet will move across Draco and past Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper), ending the month about 10° from Polaris (North Star). The comet will then continue down toward Auriga and Taurus during early February. Full Moon will be on February 5, so moonlight will interfere with comet observations for several days surrounding the 5th, but the comet should again be easily observable by the 7th or 8th.

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