Green comet's new "anti-tail" seemingly breaks the laws of physics

Astrophotographers spotted what looks like a third tail flowing in front of, instead of behind, the glowing comet.
Chris Young
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)


The green comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which last flew by Earth 50,000 years ago when Neanderthals still coexisted with humans, has been gradually making its way across the night sky over the last few days.

Many astronomers have captured images of the glowing space rock, and one new image shows the comet grew an unusual third tail.

What's more, as per a LiveScience report, this "anti-tail" appears to be flowing in the wrong direction and is, therefore, seemingly breaking the laws of physics.

Green comet seemingly breaks the laws of physics

C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is often referred to as the "green comet" due to its green, glowing coma, an envelope that forms around comets as they approach the sun. The comet was first discovered in March 2022 by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility’s wide-field survey camera at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California.

Comets like C/2022 E3 (ZTF) typically have two tails. One of these is made of dust blown off the comet by the solar wind, while the other is made of gas sublimated directly from a solid state due to the increasing heat as the comet approaches the sun.

On January 21, however, several astrophotographers, including Ruslan Merzlyakov and Alessandro Carrozzi, from Denmark and Italy, respectively, captured images of the comet with a third tail. Curiously, this tail was pointed toward the sun instead of away from it, as is the case with the other two tails.

Green comet "anti-tail" is really an optical illusion

The unusual third tail, known as an "anti-tail" is not really there at all. As points out, anti-tails are optical illusions caused by Earth moving through the comet's orbital plane. When viewed from Earth, the sun re-illuminated some of the dust drifting in the comet's trajectory. The angle can make it look like this is a third tail emanating directly from the comet. In reality, though, this is an optical illusion.

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Other comets that have been observed with anti-tails in recent years include Comet Kohoutek in 1973, Comet Hale–Bopp in 1997, and Comet PanSTARRS in 2013.

NASA points out on its website that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is expected to be closest to Earth on February 1. Around that time, it will come within about 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of our planet. The glowing space rock has gradually been shining brighter over the last few days, and it may soon become a magnitude five object, meaning it would be visible to the naked eye in dark skies.

IE published a guide on how to view C/2022 E3 (ZTF) over the next few days for those looking to locate the comet in the night sky. For example, during the nights of Jan. 26 and 27, the cosmic traveler should be visible just east of the Little Dipper's bowl in the northern hemisphere.

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