I’m sorry but Comet PANSTARRS just won’t quit. Under clear skies last night both it and its new-found companion, the Andromeda Galaxy, were dimly visible with the naked eye, with the comet the brighter. PANSTARRS continues to impress in binoculars – I use 10x50s – and the sweeping curve of its tail and bright nuclear kernel are very pretty through the telescope. It’s a joy to finally see it now in a dark sky. Click HERE for a map to find the comet yourself.
PANSTARRS loops high above the plane of the solar system presenting a broadside view of its impressive tail. I can’t recall a comet with a tail that looks so much like a sail as this one. The brightest section of the dust tail points north-northeast but fans open all the way ’round to due east and even a little beyond. That’s a spread of more than 90 degrees.
The comet continues to fade to be sure – it’s now around 4.5 magnitude – but the beauty of its form is barely diminished.
PANSTARRS was discovered by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) based at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. Right now the University is using a prototype 70.8-inch (1.8-meter) telescope that’s basically one-quarter of the Pan-STARRS system that when completed will feature four 70.8-inch scopes. They’ll simultaneously photograph 3-degree patches of sky all night long every clear night and download the pictures automatically into a computer. The primary goal of the project is to search for and find asteroids that could pose a potential hazard to Earth.
Not only did the survey discover our current comet celeb but it’s found others including P/2012 B1 PANSTARRS, a dim comet ambling through the constellation Virgo at the moment.
The “P” in the name stands for “periodic” meaning it makes regular returns to the inner solar system. B1’s period is 16.9 years and it’s currently 270 million miles from Earth, much farther than its big brother. But at least we won’t have to wait 106,000 years for its return!