February 26, 2013 in Space
Comet Pan-STARRS is nearly here. The sun grazing comet, coming all the way from the Oort Cloud, is expected to put on its potentially best display on the evening of March 12th or 13th. It should appear visible to the naked eye in the Western evening sky (as shown below), right next to the crescent moon. The comet is now predicted to end up ‘only’ as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper, though possibly with a tail visible to the naked eye. Because of how close the comet will be traveling to the Sun, the only time to see it will likely be during the twilight.
You may be able to faintly make out the comet as early as March 5th, once it nears the plant Mercury. Regardless of how bright Comet PANSTARRS ends up, in November Comet ISON is expected to greatly surpass it. Potentially becoming brighter than the Full Moon, and visible even in broad daylight.
For those in the Southern Hemisphere, Comet PANSTARRS is already visible with the naked eye. Though not very bright yet. You should be able to make it out, close to the horizon, before dawn and after sunset. You can find it currently moving through the constellation of Grus the Crane.
PANSTARRS was discovered only very recently, in June 2011, by researchers working at the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, on top of the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii. The researchers there work on the detection and identification of potentially dangerous Earth-approaching objects, such as comets and asteroids. When the comet was discovered there, the media dubbed it “PANSTARRS”, after the acronym for the telescope used.
That comet will now be making its closest approach to the Earth at the very beginning of March, being only about 100 million miles away. It won’t reach peak brightness for about another week and a half, until it gets closer to the Sun. What exactly will happen when it gets closer to the Sun is still somewhat in the air though, owing to the unpredictable nature of comets.
“Prepare to be surprised. A new comet from the Oort Cloud is always an unknown quantity equally capable of spectacular displays or dismal failures,” says Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab.
For those that don’t know what the Oort Cloud is, it is the origin place of all “new” comets. A very distant “cloud” of icy-bodies made of frozen gas, water, dust, and rock. It’s named after a 20th-century Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who theorized its existence to help explain where comets originate from. The comets that come directly from here are essentially time-capsules from the dawn of the solar system, some 4.5 billion years ago. As these comets fall towards the Sun the frozen gases they contain sublimate, creating the spectacular tails seen on some comets. Some of the larger comets throughout history have been reported to display tails that stretch across nearly the whole sky.
“Almost anything could happen,” says Battams. “On one hand, the comet could fall apart–a fizzling disappointment. On the other hand, fresh veins of frozen material could open up to spew garish jets of gas and dust into the night sky.”
“Because of its small distance from the sun, Pan-STARRS should be very active, producing a lot of dust and therefore a nice dust tail,” opined Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory.
“However,” he warns, “it could still be difficult to see. From our point of view on Earth, the comet will be very close to the sun. This means that it is only observable in twilight when the sky is not fully dark.”
If it’s clearly visible, though, it will be an interesting sight. A comet and a crescent moon right next to each other, framed in the blue color of twilight.
Comet PANSTARRS should serve as a good warm-up for the much brighter comet later this year, Comet ISON. During the months of November – January, ISON may outshine the Full Moon. And if all goes well, may possess an enormous tail, like its suspected sibling did, the Great Comet of 1680.
“Two bright comets in one year is a rare treat,” says Battams. “This could be good.” And in addition to many great meteor showers expected this year, will make a good year for amateur astronomers.
PANSTARRS isn’t expected to be seen within the inner solar system again for another 110,000 or so years.
Image Credits: NASA; Comet via Wikimedia Commons