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PANSTARRS’ Long Awaited Debut


Comet PANSTARRS taken by Argentinian photographer Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

With the mid-Atlantic region being covered by winter storm ‘Saturn’ (not a fan of naming winter storms), comet C2011/L4 PANSTARRS is about to make its debut in the northern hemisphere.  Observers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying PANSTARRS for about a month already and it finally brightened enough to be a naked-eye object in the last week or so.  While the usual naked-eye threshold is between magnitude +5 and +6 depending on your eyesight and sky conditions, comets aren’t point sources of light like stars and planets and their light is spread out over a larger surface are with respect to the entire sky so their brightness in magnitude can be a little deceiving.  Right now PANSTARRS is hovering right around magnitude +2 which puts it theoretically as bright as the brightest stars in Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.  For us in the northern hemisphere though, it likely won’t appear as brilliant as it is in the southern hemisphere because of it’s proximity to the sun.  The comet is expected to make its northern debut tomorrow, March 7th after sunset.  The problem for us is that it is approaching its perihelion, its closest distance to the sun, so it will only be visible during twilight.  Picking PANSTARRS out might be difficult and it might only appear to the naked-eye as a small fuzzy ball barely creeping over the western horizon.

That being said, binoculars will be a great aide to those looking to spot PANSTARRS early on.  The comet won’t get much higher than 10° above the western horizon.  Ten degrees is approximately the size of your clenched fist held at arms length.  In order to spot PANSTARRS in its first couple of days in the north you’ll have to find a viewing location that has an unobstructed view of the western horizon that is reasonably dark.  Getting away from street lights and house lights is key as they both create a glare that makes it difficult to see and limits your eyes’ ability to adapt to the growing darkness.  A rooftop that can be safely accessed might provide a good vantage point to spot the comet.

How to spot PANSTARRS in March.  A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th.  Credit:

How to spot PANSTARRS in March. A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th. Credit:

In a simple pair of 10’x50′ binoculars you should be able to see the dust tail that stretches several degrees beyond the comet’s nucleus.  Whether or not an ion tail produced by the solar wind will be visible remains to be seen.  As March wears on the comet will steadily rise in the western sky each night as it moves further away from the sun.  Again it won’t get very high in the sky but at least towards mid-March you should be able to view it in reasonable darkness until about 7 pm.  I’ll be away on a retreat this weekend in a semi-dark region at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so I hope to be able to snap a few pictures of PANSTARRS.  I will certainly post anything that is decent.

For now, as winter storm ‘Saturn’ dumps mostly rain on me, I had to settle for this amazing timelapse video of comets Lemmon and PANSTARRS in the sky together.  This was taken by Australian astrophotographer and videographer Alex Cheney.  It is quite a rare sight to be able to see two comets in the same sky together!  I swear those southern hemisphere dwellers get to have all the fun!

Comets: Why the Solar System Rocks!

When we look back, 2013 may be remembered as the Year of the Comets.  As I’m sure you may have heard already we have two potentially immensely wonderful comets heading our direction this year; the first of which will be its closest to the Sun on March 10th.  The more you learn about comets the more you appreciate how amazing the solar system is!  When you consider what comets are, how they get here, and what on Earth makes them shine so beautifully then fade into oblivion for thousands of years you are left with a sense of awe because the answer to all of these questions is…the Sun.

Thanks to Nicolas Copernicus we know that the Sun is the center of our solar system and that everything in the solar system orbits the Sun on regular and predictable paths.  You have the 8 major planets, the asteroids in the asteroid belt, the minor, or dwarf, planets of a region called the Kuiper belt, of which Pluto is a member, then far, far away from the Sun at a distance of almost one light year you is the region known as the Oort Cloud.  The Oort cloud is a massive region of space mostly by tiny chunks of ice and rock left over from the formation of the solar system.  These chunks of ice and rock are so far away from the Sun that they are approximately one-quarter the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.  The Sun is barely more than a pin point of light out here and its gravity is just strong enough to keep these tiny chunks of ice loosely in orbit.  However, the gravity is so weak that objects in the Oort Cloud are influenced by passing stars and the Milky Way itself.  All it takes is the slightest gravitational nudge from another star to dislodge an ice chunk from its happy orbit and send it drifting slowly towards the inner solar system.

Cutaway drawing of Oort Cloud  Image credit: NASA/JPL

Cutaway drawing of Oort Cloud Image credit: NASA/JPL

This is how we believe most long period comets are born.  Long period comets are comets with highly eccentric (or lopsided) orbits that span between 200 and thousands, or even millions of years.  Comet McNaught that passed through the solar system back in 2007 is a long period comet with an orbit of about 92,600 years.  It’s safe to say that we won’t see that bad boy again in our lifetimes!

Once the ice chunk is dislodged from its orbit in the Oort Cloud it begins its long, slow journey towards the Sun.  The Sun’s gravity begins to pull it in towards itself on an epic tour of the solar system that spans almost an entire light year (one light year is 6 trillion miles).  Comets are typically no bigger than a hundred or so meters across but the Sun causes something to happen on their surface that makes them spectacular sights in the night sky.  Out in the Oort Cloud it is mind-bogglingly cold.  Before they turn into comets the chunks rocks and dust mixed with chunks of frozen water, ammonia, carbon dioxide or methane that are so cold they’re as hard as steel.  But once they get close enough to the Sun they begin to heat up.

Once the comet arrives in the inner solar system the Sun’s heat begins to melt the ice and it begins to evaporate and glow brightly which is caused by solar ionization.  The glowing cloud of evaporating gas is called the coma.  Once the coma is formed the tell-tale…well, tail of the comet begins to form as the solar wind from the Sun blows against the comet.  The comet, tail, and coma steadily brighten as the comet gets closer and closer to the Sun.  They also begin to pick up more speed the closer they get.  By the time a comet is visible on Earth it already has a dazzling coma and tail that can be as bright as the stars and perhaps even the planets!

It is once the comet is within the orbit of Mercury that the fate of the comet is determined.  Most comets slingshot around the Sun at a safe distance that they make it around without a problem and begin their lonely journey back out of the solar system into oblivion.  Other comets called sun grazers get so close to the Sun that they actually pass through the Sun’s upper atmosphere, the photosphere, or even the solar corona where the temperature is millions of degrees Fahrenheit.  Some sun grazers make it out intact while others break apart and disintegrate, much like a frozen coffee mug when boiling water is poured in it.  Others still are known as sun divers which literally plunge right into the Sun and are never heard from again.

Comet Hale Bopp in 1997

Comet Hale Bopp in 1997

Once the point of perihelion, or the comets closest approach to the Sun is reached the comet begins it’s journey back to where it came from.  Depending upon the positioning of the planets on its return journey, some comets stay in orbit around the Sun and will eventually return.  If a planet’s gravity nudges the comet on the way out it could end up being ejected from the solar system entirely and be doomed to roam the void of interstellar space forever.  Whatever the fate of the comet we get to observe the magnificent effects of the Sun on them from the Earth, both visually and scientifically.

This year we have two potentially dazzling and memorable comets heading our way!  The first of which is named comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS, or PANSTARRS for short.  With a perihelion of March 10, 2013 it promises to put on a nice show throughout the months of March and April.  Observers in the northern hemisphere won’t be able to see the comet until after its perihelion though.  So be sure to get outside during clear nights in March and April to see this orbiting rocky ice clump.  Currently, PANSTARRS is projected to get as bright as the planet Venus if everything goes according to plan with its passage around the Sun.  PANSTARRS will be bright and low in the sky about 30 minutes after sunset in mid-March.

If you miss PANSTARRS or couldn’t get enough comet viewing action for one year you’re in luck!  Even brighter and more spectacular than PANSTARRS will be comet ISON in the fall months.  ISON is currently close to Jupiter on its voyage towards the Sun but will begin to be visible in binoculars in the beginning of October.  By November 1st ISON will be within the orbit of Earth and should be a spectacular -6 magnitude!  Astronomers measure brightness by magnitude with the lower the number being a brighter object.  The planet Saturn is +1 magnitude and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is -1.46.  By the time it reaches its perihelion on November 28th it is expected to reach a -12.6 magnitude which is as bright as the full moon!  That means that as it passes next to the Sun it will be visible during the daytime if you use your hand to cover the Sun!  ISON should put on a show of a lifetime during November and December and will truly be something to tell your kids and grandchildren about because ISON will likely never return.  If you own a telescope or a pair of binoculars make time to get out with your friends and observe this marvelous comet.  This one has the potential to be the brightest comet in recent history, brighter even than the famous Halley’s comet.

Comet McNaught from 2007

Comet McNaught from 2007

It never ceases to amaze me that all the wonderful things we love about comets, their beautiful tails and diamond-like sparkle is all due to the power of the Sun.  We live in an active solar system that is constantly moving and it is all thanks to the Sun’s influence.

Top 10 Impacts and Near Misses

I just read a story on today that reports asteroid 2011 AG5 has a chance to smash into Earth in the year 2040.  The asteroid was discovered in January of 2011 and was observed through September of that year.  The piece of space rock is 460 feet (140 meters) wide and could pass close enough to Earth to pose a threat to us on the surface.  While the odds of an impact are just 1 out of 625, any non-zero probability impact is closely monitored by the international astronomy community.  On its closest pass in 2023 2011 AG5 could shave by our planet at a distance of just 0.02 astronomical units (the distance between Earth and the sun), bringing it to a close shave of just 1.86 million miles.  The probability of impact is expected to decrease as scientists observe more orbits of the asteroid but it is still deserving of high levels of attention.

That got me thinking.  What are some of the closest shaves, or impacts, we’ve had with asteroids?  I’ve put together a list of ten asteroid collisions and near misses.  Enjoy and be horrified!

10) Comet Lexell passed within 0.0151 AU (1.4 million miles) of Earth on July 1, 1770 making it the closest comet pass by the Earth

9) Asteroid 2011 MD passed by Earth at an altitude of just 7,500 mi. which is roughly the diameter of the Earth, the rock was between 10 and 45 meters and it was estimated that it would have burned up in the atmosphere and only produced a few impacting fragments

8) A meteoroid named 2011 CQ1 flew by the Earth at a staggering distance of only 3,400 miles.  It was discovered on the same day as its closest pass to Earth.  The rock was only four feet wide so it posed absolutely no threat to life on Earth

7) A mere two months ago asteroid 2005 YU55, a 400 meter wide rock, passed within 201,700 mi. (0.85 lunar distances)

6) Meteoroid 2008 TC3 entered Earth’s atmosphere on October 7, 2008 and exploded over the Nubian Desert in Sudan.  It was the first object to be tracked as it approached the surface.

5) The event nicknamed “The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball” produced a meteoroid that passed a mere 35 miles from the Earth’s surface.  The meteoroid entered the atmosphere over Utah and skipped back out over Alberta, Canada.  The meteoroid was 57 meters wide  and could have detonated an explosion of up to 2 kilotons had it impacted the surface.

4) 1989 FC was a 300 meter wide asteroid that passed within 0.00457 AU of Earth.  While it never came within the orbital radius of the moon, it passed through the exact location of the Earth six hours earlier which drew many a sigh of relief.

3) The Barringer Crater, also known as Meteor Crater, is an impact crater in Arizona where a 50 meter meteoroid hit the planet approximately 500,000 years ago.  The crater is 0.737 miles across and 570 feet deep.

2) The Tunguska Event was an extremely powerful explosion that occurred over the region of Siberia in Russia in 1908.  It is believed that the explosion resulted from the airburst of a large meteoroid or comet just 3-6 miles above the surface.  The fragment never hit the ground but is still regarded as an impact because it released an explosion equivalent to 10-15 megatons of TNT that was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

1) Number one simply has to be the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago.  The 10 kilometer wide object that hit the Earth there left an impact crater 120 miles in diameter and killed the dinosaurs and approximately 70% of life on Earth.   The impact packed a punch to the tune of 96 tetratons of TNT.  WOW.

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