Cool Moon, Hot Sun And A Laser-like PANSTARRS Comet

Click to watch the nearly full moon cover the bright star Beta Scopii last night.

I caught a glimpse of the moon last night but clouds ruled soon after. Too bad. Like some of you I’d hoped to see the bright star Beta in the constellation Scorpius pinned to the moon’s edge. Others were luckier including Dave Dickinson, who watched the event from Hudson, Florida. You can watch the moon slowly edge up to the star and cover it in his video above. All these broiling and boiling you see along the moon’s edge is due to air turbulence.

The sun photographed this morning at 10:15 a.m CDT by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspot groups 1755 and 1756 are magnetically complex and could produce moderately powerful M-class flares. The groups are approaching the center of the sun’s disk, a great place to let loose with flares that could lead to auroral displays on Earth. Credit: NASA

Billows of high-speed particles shot out during from recent solar flares arrived yesterday afternoon (U.S. time) and overnight. Any auroras that might have been visible had to compete with moonlight in northern European skies and again this morning around 1-2 a.m. Central time here in the northern U.S. and Canada. There remains a 20% chance for a minor auroras for mid-latitudes tonight.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on May 23 displays a long, “laser beam” tail due to our unique perspective on the comet. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

By Monday night (May 27), the moon will be out of the sky for at least a little while at nightfall. During this  dark window I encourage sky watchers with 50mm or larger binoculars or a telescope to point it toward Comet PANSTARRS, the comet that keeps on giving. Earth passes through PANSTARRS’ orbital plane Sunday-Monday affording us a unique perspective.

From our perspective on Earth we view the dust boiled off from Comet PANSTARRS’ nucleus edge-on this weekend. It all stacks up to create a very narrow, long and relatively bright tail. Seen broadside, it would appear as a wide, faint fan. Illustration: NASA with additions by Bob King

Normally we look at comets off to one side or another and see the dust left behind in its orbit as a broad glowing fan or fan-shaped tail. This weekend however we’ll face PANSTARRS’ debris edge-on. All the dust spewed in the past few months lines up one particle in front of the other to create a thin streak of a tail many degrees long. The photo shows the effect beautifully. You can read more about Earth and PANSTARRS in my article in Universe Today. Click HERE for a map to find the comet.