Comet PANSTARRS K1 tickles the Great Bear’s toes

Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS flashes two tails as it passes near the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 2, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Even if you don’t have a telescope, you can still enjoy the photo of two-tailed wonder Comet K1 PANSTARRS passing the Whirlpool Galaxy a few nights ago.┬áThe shorter tail is made of dust boiled off the comet’s nucleus by the sun’s heat; the long, dangling ion tail of gases that glow when energized by the sun’s ultraviolet light.

This photo of K1 PANSTARRS gives a very good impression of how it looks in a modest telescope with a bright nucleus in the coma’s center and short tail to the southeast. Credit: William Wiethoff

We see the dust tail for the same reason you can see dust floating in a sunbeam coming through your window – it’s an excellent reflector of sunlight. Tails can grow to many millions of miles long and give comets their special visual appeal. The longest measured belonged to Comet Hyakutake which swung by Earth in 1996 with a dust tailed over 310 million miles (500 million km) long!

Don’t be fooled though by these big numbers. There’s so little material in comet tails I once read you could pack it into a single suitcase if you had a big enough vacuum cleaner to gather it up. Let’s just say you get a lot of bang for your buck with these small, icy bodies.

Map showing Comet PANSTARRS k1 as it tracks across the sky near the Big Dipper this month through early June. Stars are shown to magnitude +8; brighter ones are named. To find the Dipper, look high in the northern sky at nightfall. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software.

Comet K1 PANSTARRS was discovered by the PANSTARRS-1 survey telescope atop Haleakala Crater on Maui, Hawaii in May 1982. Only in the past few months has it brightened enough to see in smaller telescopes. Observers with scopes 6-inches and up should find the comet easily enough especially since it’s traversing the familiar constellation of Ursa Major the Great Bear not far from the Bowl of the Big Dipper.

Wide view showing the track of Comet PANSTARRS K1 in May. Stellarium

Two nights ago I even found it in 50mm binoculars from a dark sky where it looked like a faint, smoky smudge of light. Try it yourself – you might be surprised. Currently at magnitude 9, PANSTARRS K1 has been gradually brightening week by week. Come autumn, it should be obvious in binoculars at magnitude 6. Observers with dark skies might even see it with the naked eye.

When you connect all the starry “dots” around the Big Dipper, it forms the shape of the Great Bear. The comet spends its time this month moving down the leg and into the bear’s toes. Stellarium

Now through about June 20 K1 will be well-placed for skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes. While brightest in fall, it will be very low in the morning sky shortly before dawn, so look for it soon if you can.

Through the scope, the comet shows a cottonball-like coma with a bright, starlike nucleus and short, fat tail pointing southeast.

The moon is returning to the evening sky, but before it’s too bright, take a look the next few nights. Dark, moonless skies return again beginning around May 16. Good luck!

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

9 thoughts on “Comet PANSTARRS K1 tickles the Great Bear’s toes

  1. You may recall me asking your opinion regarding Northern Lights affecting FM radii reception. We are tuned to FM every day. When the Aurora’s were present we were having FM static. I recognize there can be other explanations but it does seem more than a coincidence. (Today there was electrical noise too).

    • Hi Bria,
      Very low activity today for the aurora, so that could not be the cause. Also, since you last wrote, I’ve listened to FM radio in the car during several auroras (including the most recent) – either on my way to the observing site or on the way home after – and have not heard any static or difference in reception. On Saturday night I brought my VLF (very low frequency) radio received along to listen to the sounds given off by the aurora due to electrons buzzing around Earth’s magnetic field. They don’t sound like static but more like chirping. I suspect there’s another cause to the static you’re picking up.

  2. Thanks for your response. In the late 1950′s radios were a different item and full of tubes instead of transistors. In our home my parents had a table radio that would emit a squealing/chirping when there was an active Aurora. I suppose new AM radios have suppressors and probably the FM is not affected at all. Thanks again. My question was directed towards whether we had a “Northern Lights Finder” and did not know it. :)

  3. Hi Bob, found your excellent S&T article on C/2012 K1. It mentions passing by star 61 Leo Minoris shortly, but I think you meant 21. I posted a comment there, but seems stuck in “moderation mode” :)

    Ray

      • Yep, that looks better. I tried to see the comet tonight from Oakland light pollution with my 8″ Dob, couldn’t pick it out… which slightly surprised me, because I’ve been able to catch M82 from here. Next weekend we’re planning a dark sky trip, so should catch it then…

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