Thursday, March 14, 2013

Comet PanSTARRS from Wildcat Peak!


COMET COMET COMET COMET COMET! I spotted a comet! Well, to be fair, my eagle-eyed pal Susan spotted Comet Pan-STARRS through stabilized binoculars, and then showed me. We capped off a day of hiking around the Tilden Nature Area, Jewel Lake, and Wildcat Canyon, by watching the bright comet until it was lost in the wispy post-twilight clouds.

PanSTARRS Comet Watching
Setting up! Wildcat Peak, Tilden, Berkeley, CA

When all was said and done, we covered 10.5 miles of hilly terrain, but briefly-aching feet were completely worth it to see that beautiful ball of steaming ice from Wildcat Peak, very likely once a citizen of the distant Oort Cloud!

Happily, we were high enough to avoid buildings, far enough from cities to avoid light pollution, but not so removed that we couldn't access the internet. We and tons of other space enthusiasts have been live-tweeting sightings and photographs all week, and I am sure this worldwide gazing party will only increase until PanStarrs is rendered invisible by the sun glare toward the end of March.

Comet Pan-STARRS
Photograph through binoculars, by Susan Bell

Have you spotted it, yet? Many of the online guides are vague, because of course the viewing field for the comet depends heavily on your vantage point.  But, some easy tips are to go high, go dark, and follow hashtag #PanSTARRS on Twitter.  It's a good way to compare cloud covers, estimate directions and see where other people are spotting and photographing!

Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS is named after the telescopic survey that first spotted it, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System; the first hardware, PS1, was placed on the Haleakala volcano in Hawai'i, and from this vantage point, it has discovered numerous new comets and asteroids by comparing past views to current views of varied sky areas.

The full (four telescopes now) system's primary mission is to detect near-Earth objects (NEOs) that may indicate future impact collisions... a pretty hot topic for everyone, suddenly. Thank you, single-day Asteroid-and-Meteor Team!


PanSTARRS L4 made its closest approach to Earth (1.097 Astronomical Units, about 400 times the distance from Earth to the Moon), and has been visible in the Southern Hemisphere for some weeks.  We Northerners are finally getting our chance now!  Given that the comet's tail of debris is about ten times longer than the Earth is wide, we will continue for weeks to see light reflected from all that ice and dust as it zooms through our celestial neighborhood.

Just past perihelion now, many astronomers estimate the course as a 106,000 year orbit. So get out there and look up toward the crescent moon!  You won't be around in another, oh, THOUSAND centuries when it returns.

Comet panstarrs
Pan-STARRS and Moon, by Kevin Baird

My favorite northern capture so far comes from Spacetweep Photographer Kevin Baird, also known for his fantastic collection  of launch, constellation and NASA Social pictures... with the occasional stormtrooper.

Click on the above picture to see the original sized photo, and many other stunningly clear shots from his viewing point in San Diego, California!