March 11, 2013
Comet PANSTARRS Visible In UK And Irish Skies
A comet discovered by a Queen´s University Belfast supported project will be visible in UK and Irish skies from tomorrow evening (Tuesday 12 March) onwards.
Comet PANSTARRS was discovered in June 2011, by a team including astronomers from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen´s, using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii, when it was still 1.2 billion kilometers from the Sun.
The comet will be visible by eye low-down in the Western sky from roughly 6:45pm GMT onwards, after sunset. People away from city lights should be able to see the comet with its faint gossamer tails pointing away from the Sun for at least half an hour.
Dr Pedro Lacerda, the Michael West Research Fellow in Queen´s Astrophysics Research Centre, said: "The coma at the head of the comet should be visible to the naked eye but to see the tail may require the use of binoculars. The most visible features will be its tail and bright coma. Those features originate in the nucleus of a comet, a solid lump of dirty ice which, heated by sunlight, sublimates and feeds the diffuse cloud of gas and dust that gives the comet its fuzzy appearance - the coma. Then, light and other particles from the sun push part of the coma away from the nucleus to form the tail which gives comets their spectacular appearance."
"Comets are important as frozen relics of the formation of our solar system. Before plunging into the inner solar system they spend most of their lives beyond Neptune at temperatures below negative 220 C. For that reason comets retain ices of the ingredients that were present when the planets were born and that are long gone from the surfaces of the much warmer asteroids, for example."
The comet will be brightest in March in the Western sky after sunset. As it moves away from the Sun and Earth, however, it will become too faint to see by eye by late March or early April. It will then disappear into space, not returning for many thousands of years.
Astronomers from Queen´s University use the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope to discover and study asteroids and comets in the Solar system, as well as the explosive death of stars in Supernovae. It surveys the sky every night with the largest civilian digital camera in the World. Since 2010 it has discovered tens of comets and hundreds of Supernovae and Near-Earth Asteroids.