Saturday, March 9, 2013

Comet Pan STARR - The New Kid in Town, March 10th

Sunday, March 10th, we may all be in for a treat.  There’s a new kid on the block.  You may have heard of him: The comet Pan STARRS.  As with all new kids moving into the neighborhood, however briefly, we’re pretty curious about them.  Where goes this comet come from and where’s it going?

Pan STARRS comes to us from the region of our solar system past Pluto where our Sun is no more than a pinpoint of light.  In this frozen darkness lies a debris field of icy balls of gaseous material and cosmic dust known as comets.  This field is called the Oort Field and it is the point of origin for comets within our system.  

Where did this comet get a name like Pan STARRS (And I thought celebrities came up with crazy stuff)?  Pan STARRS was discovered in 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System located at the Haleakala Observatory on the island of Mauii, in Hawaii.  The comet was named using the acronym for our planetary advance warning program, S.T.A.R.R.  The Haleakala Observatory searches for objects (among other things) approaching us from space to determine whether or not they pose a threat to our planet. Good to know someone is keeping an eye peeled.

Pan STARRS is what’s referred to as a ‘naked eye’ comet, meaning it is viewable without a telescope and doesn’t require optical filters to protect your eyes. It is visible in the northern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, to the left of the setting sun. 

Sunday the 10th is the date this comet makes it’s closest approach to “Old Sol.”  Astronomers have theories on what we can expect - theories, because this is the first time Pan STARR has come to visit.  The comet is expected to be about as bright in appearance as the stars in the constellation known as The Big Dipper.  As the comet draws closer to our Sun, its ice will melt, releasing more gaseous material and debris.  This material will show as a ‘tail’ streaming behind the comet.  Astronomers hope to witness an impressive display.  The best time for viewing Pan STARR is at sunset on the 10th, but also on 12th and 13th of March.  However, the comet should be visible for the rest of the month. 

2013 will have a rare, second comet making an appearance in November.  This one is called, Ison.  I’ll have more on Ison later.  In the meantime, keep looking up.


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