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Pan-Starrs Telescope Spots Comet Approaching the Sun

Icy dust ball to come within 30 million miles of the sun in early 2013.

June 23, 2011
Maui Weekly

Originally found by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakalā on June 5 and 6, it was confirmed to be a comet by UH Astronomer Richard Wainscoat and graduate student Marco Micheli the following night using the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope on Mauna Kea.

A preliminary orbit computed by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., shows that the comet will come within about 30 million miles of the sun in early 2013, about the same distance as Mercury. The comet will pose no danger to Earth.

Wainscoat said, “The comet has an orbit that is close to parabolic, meaning that this may be the first time it will ever come close to the sun, and that it may never return.”

Article Photos

Astronomers at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa have discovered C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), a new comet that they expect will be visible to the naked eye in early 2013.

The comet is now about 700 million miles from the sun, placing it beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It is currently too faint to be seen without a telescope with a sensitive electronic detector.

The comet is expected to be brightest in February or March 2013, when it makes its closest approach to the sun. At that time, the comet is expected to be visible low in the western sky after sunset, but the bright twilight sky may make it difficult to view.

Over the next few months, astronomers will continue to study the comet, which will allow better predictions of how bright it will become. Wainscoat and UH Astronomer Henry Hsieh cautioned that predicting the brightness of comets is notoriously difficult, with numerous past comets failing to reach their expected brightness.

Making brightness predictions for new comets is difficult because astronomers do not know how much ice they contain. Because sublimation of ice (conversion from solid to gas) is the source of cometary activity and a major contributor to a comet’s overall eventual brightness, more accurate brightness predictions will not be possible until the comet becomes more active as it approaches the sun and astronomers get a better idea of its ice content.

This comet has been named C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Comets are usually named after their discoverers, but in this case, because a large team was involved, including observers, computer scientists and astronomers, the comet is named after the telescope.

C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) most likely originated in the Oort cloud, an area of cometlike objects located in the distant outer solar system. It was probably gravitationally disturbed by a distant passing star, sending it on its long journey toward the sun.

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

The comet was found while searching the sky for potentially hazardous asteroids—ones that may someday hit Earth. Software engineer Larry Denneau, with help from Wainscoat and Astronomers Robert Jedicke, Mikael Granvik and Tommy Grav, designed software that searches each image taken by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope for moving objects. Denneau, Hsieh and UH astronomer Jan Kleyna also wrote other software that searches the moving objects for comets’ tell-tale fuzzy appearance. The comet was identified by this automated software.

 
 
 

 

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