Coming to a Telescope Near You... Comet PANSTARRS

This article is the first in a series on comets contributed by Tammy Plotner. Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She was the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter’s Gold Status.

Right now, within the orbit of Mars and about 113 million miles away from the Sun, an icy traveler from the Oort Cloud is headed our way. Although it poses absolutely no threat to Earth, Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) may become an incredible sight for both backyard and professional telescopes around the world. PANSTARRS’ journey through the solar system could be one of the greatest celestial sights of the decade, or it could end in disappointment. Right now, it’s too early to be sure–but never give up hope!

On the night of June 5, 2011, the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System) 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, spotted a dim, moving ball of frozen gases and dust. Researchers confirmed the object was officially a comet, and named it PANSTARRS for the telescope that discovered it. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory began calculating a preliminary orbit for PANSTARRS, which estimated the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, called its perihelion, will occur on March 10, 2013. At that time, the comet will be about 34 million miles from the Sun and about 118 million miles from Earth. According to theorists, this means the comet could increase in magnitude about 14 times - or become about 300,000 times brighter than it is now.

For now, astronomers can’t predict exactly what will happen, because Comet PANSTARRS is still so distant. But come this Spring, all eyes will be turned towards the skies as PANSTARRS reaches perihelion and puts on a good show
 or Southern Hemisphere observers. After it swings around the Sun, it should become visible to Northern Hemisphere observers before dawn. You’ll be able to spot it low on the eastern horizon with its tail pointed straight up. Get your telescopes and binoculars ready, because PANSTARRS is on its way…

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-Tammy Plotner
Celestron Comet Expert