December 8, 2023

In early February, a comet will pass Earth that has not been seen in 50,000 years. Feb. 1 marked the closest the comet will get to Earth. This orbit means it came from the Oort cloud, a collection of ice on the farthest reaches of our solar system, according to the National Aeronautics Space Administration. The comet is called ZTF, named after the Zwicky Transient Facility at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in California.

Dr. James Buchholz, professor of mathematics and physics, talked about how far out the ZTF comet came from.

“It comes from a distance so far away, it’s probably about a third of the way to the next star,” Buchholz said. “It’s coming from a distance that’s a third of the way to Alpha Centauri.”

As the teacher of California Baptist University’s astronomy classes, Buchholz saw this as the perfect opportunity to let his students get experience with celestial objects in real time.

After hearing about the comet on social media, Kelsey Bechler, junior environmental science major, learned she was going to take pictures of the comet in her astronomy class when the comet is closest to the earth.

“We just took a picture of the green comet just in time for the best view,” Bechler said. “So we took pictures of that and then we used different colored lenses — red, green and blue — in order to see the different kinds of filters that are going to come through.”

Another student in the class, Jackson Barnard, senior exercise science major, explained a bit about the process they go through to take the photos.

“We used telescopes of different widths and lengths so that would get different pictures of the comet itself, some where it’s just a little dot in the center with a lot of space around it, others where it’s all that you can see on the screen.” Barnard said. “We also did different lenses — so red, green and blue — just capturing the different light from each.”

Skynet is a system that allows students to access professional telescopes to take pictures of the stars, but the pictures come back in black and white, so they use filters to only capture a specific kind of light, then shade it that color and stack the images to get it in full color in a system called Afterglow.

Watch for the comet in the north part of the sky early this February. It will appear with a blue-green hue and it will be visible with binoculars for several days.

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