Comet PANSTARRS x 2 and the Pan-STARRS asteroid survey

The Andromeda Galaxy (left) and Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS last night about 9:20 p.m. The tail fans out broadly in the galaxy’s direction. To the left of the comet’s head is a sharp, stub of a tail made of larger dust particles that fall along the comet’s orbit. Details: 300mm lens, f/2.8, 90-second exposure on a tracking mount. Photo: Bob King

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.

Comet PANSTARRS moves along a steeply tilted orbit that takes it far above and below the plane of the planets. Right now it’s high above Earth’s north pole and we its tail broadside. The comet takes about 106,000 years to complete an orbit around the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL/Bob King

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.

The prototype Pan-STARRS telescope is housed in a dome at the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala in Hawaii. Credit: Brad Simison

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.

This photo taken April 4, 2013 of Comet P/2012 B1 PANSTARRS shows a streak of a tail, small bright nucleus that looks like a star and a short “anti-tail” from material boiled off by the sun and left behind in its orbit. Credit: Damian Peach

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!

One thought on “Comet PANSTARRS x 2 and the Pan-STARRS asteroid survey

  1. Great photos of the duet, Bob. 300mm f/2.8 – photojournalist’s equipment! :) May I ask which lens (and focal multiplier, if) did you use?

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