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Attention All Skywatchers! Comet Spotting Alert

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope. Credit: Rob Ratkowski for the PS1SC

The first of this year’s two potential bright comets is visible for those who can see low on the western horizon.

Officially called comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), this comet is expected to first become viewable March 8 in the northern hemisphere by looking (with a set of binoculars) towards the western horizon just after sunset.

By March 12, the comet will be a little higher in the western sky and become viewable with the naked eye soon after twilight. The comet will appear as a bright point of light with its diffuse tail pointing straight up from the horizon like an exclamation point, according to a NASA/JPL statement.

Named after telescope

The comet was originally found by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui in Hawaii. It was discovered on June 6, 2011. Comets are usually named after their discoverers, but in this case — because a large team, including observers, computer scientists, and astronomers were involved — the comet is named after the telescope.

A preliminary orbit computed by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., shows that the comet will come within about 30 million miles (50 million km) of the Sun in early 2013, about the same distance as Mercury.

2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) most likely originated in the Oort cloud, a cloud of comet-like objects located in the distant outer solar system. It was probably gravitationally disturbed by a distant passing star, sending it on a long journey toward the Sun.

Pristine material

Comets like C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) offer astronomers a rare opportunity to look at pristine material left over from the early formation of the solar system.

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope has a 1.8-meter-diameter mirror and the largest digital camera in the world (1.4 billion pixels). Each image is almost 3 gigabytes in size, and the camera takes an image approximately every 45 seconds. Each night, the telescope images more than 1,000 square degrees of the night sky.

The Pan-STARRS Project is being led by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

A major goal of Pan-STARRS is to discover and characterize Earth-approaching objects — both asteroids & comets — that might pose a danger to our planet.

Once again, the comet should be visible very low down in the Western sky after sunset from the second week of March through to the end of March. It should be brightest in the second week of March.

The twilight sky will make it much harder to see than if it was high up in a dark sky, and moonlight will also interfere with viewing the comet after March 13th.

NOTE: Check out this informative video from NASA/JPL on spotting the comet, and other data on comet-probing via spacecraft missions.

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By Leonard David


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