Comet Pan-STARSS Survives Solar Encounter, Emerges Brighter Than Ever
March 17, 2013

Comet Pan-STARSS Survives Solar Encounter, Emerges Brighter Than Ever

redOrbit staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

A comet making its first visit to the inner solar system has survived a journey that brought it close to the sun, and has emerged as one of the brightest comets in years, NASA astronomers confirmed on Friday.

Comet Pan-STARRS, which according to the Daily Mail has been visible for several weeks in the Southern Hemisphere, could be viewed for the first time by stargazers in the northern parts of the world last week after dipping within the orbit of Mercury.

According to NASA, at its closest approach, Pan-STARRS was only 28 million miles away from the sun. Experts were unsure whether or not it would be able to survive such near proximity, with heat levels exceeding 10 times that felt here on Earth. The strong solar heat could have caused long-frozen gases in the comet´s nucleus to vaporize, causing the comet itself to break up or be completely destroyed.

Not only did Comet Pan-STARRS survive, but it has emerged as “a gorgeous comet — one of the brightest in years," Matthew Knight, an astronomer with the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said in a statement. NASA reported on Friday the solar heating from its approach has caused the comet to glow brighter than a first magnitude star, making it easily visible using binoculars and small telescopes during the first hour or two after sunset.

The comet was discovered in June 2011 and is named for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, the Hawaiian telescope used to first observe it nearly two years ago, according to the Daily Mail. It originated from the Oort cloud, a deep space reservoir of comets far beyond the orbit of Pluto, NASA explained. The comet is currently on its way out of the solar system, and reports suggest it will not return to the inner Milky Way for another 100,000 years.

European Southern Observatory comet specialist Emmanuel Jehin, who has been using a remote-controlled telescope in Chile to track Comet Pan-STARRS, reported the comet “seems to be producing quite a bit of dust compared to an average comet. This is very good for its visibility, because the extra dust is reflecting sunlight and making Pan-STARRS appear brighter than it would otherwise."

The amount of dust and gas being spewed from the comet suggests Pan-STARRS is about one kilometer in diameter, making it approximately a medium-sized, fairly typical comet. However, it´s tail has astonished astronomers, including Karl Battams of the Washington, DC-based Naval Research Lab (NRL).

After processing images of the comet obtained by one of NASA´s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) probes, Battams said, “The fine-structure is breathtaking. We think this is caused by some fairly complex interaction between the solar wind and the comet's rotating nucleus. It's going to take computer models to figure this one out.”

The US space agency reports Comet Pan-STARRS could be visible with the naked eye during the second-half of this month — and according to the Daily Mail, it won´t be the only comet that astronomers and space enthusiasts will be able to view over the next 12 months.

“Later this year, in November and December, Comet ISON is expected to be one of the brightest comets ever seen and experts believe it will be brighter than the moon in the night sky,” the UK newspaper said. “And next year astronomers are anticipating potential cosmic fireworks after they identified a comet hurtling into our solar system that could hit Mars with potentially catastrophic force. According to current calculations, comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) is set for a near miss that will bring it within 23,000 miles of the surface of the Red Planet.”