Rosman, NC (February 6, 2013) – Astronomers at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman, NC, along with the rest of the astronomical world, are anxiously awaiting the appearance of a bright comet in early March. Comet PanSTARRS is named for the Panoramic Survey and Rapid Response System telescope on Mount Haleakala in Hawaii with which it was discovered in June 2011.
At that time the comet was a faint fuzzy blob over 750 million miles from the Sun, between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Using prediscovery images (sometimes astronomers “accidentally” photograph such objects while taking pictures for other purposes.) and observations since, astronomers have determined that PanSTARRS will reach its closest point to the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury on March 10. At that time it should be visible low in the west in the evening twilight; binoculars will probably help.
During the rest of March the comet will move farther north and higher in the twilight each evening. By the last few days of the month it will be very close to Polaris, the North Star. (For a chart of its path, see page 50 of the March issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.) The best viewing will probably be March 8-20.
While astronomers anticipate PanSTARRS will be visible to the naked eye and may even be a “great” comet, it should be realized that comets are notoriously unpredictable. If PanSTARRS is a new comet that has never been near the Sun before, once its outer layer of dust has been burned off, it may not be as bright as hoped. Unfortunately, this is what the latest data seems to indicate. On the other hand, if it is in a highly elliptical orbit, it has been around the Sun many times before, probably long ago, and may develop into a bright comet with a long tail as it experiences the heat of the Sun.
For the latest information on this potentially “great” comet go to HYPERLINK "skypub.com/panstarrs" skypub.com/panstarrs.
PARI is a public not-for-profit public foundation established in 1998. Located in the Pisgah National Forest southwest of Asheville, NC, PARI offers educational programs at all levels, from K-12 through post-graduate research. For more information about PARI and its programs, visit www.pari.edu.
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