University of Hawaii System newsletter

Pan-STARRS Telescope Spots New Distant Comet

Posted on | June 24, 2011 | Comments Off

comet in space

Image taken at the Pan-STARRS 1 Telescope June 5-6.

Astronomers at Mānoa have discovered a new comet that they expect will be visible to the naked eye in early 2013. Originally found by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala June 5–6, it was confirmed to be a comet by Mānoa astronomer Richard Wainscoat and graduate student Marco Micheli the following night using the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope on Mauna Kea.

“The comet has an orbit that is close to parabolic, meaning that this may be the first time it will ever come close to the sun, and that it may never return,” says Wainscoat.

A preliminary orbit computed by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows that the comet will come within about 30 million miles of the sun in early 2013, about the same distance as Mercury. The comet will pose no danger to Earth.

The comet is now about 700 million miles from the sun, placing it beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It is currently too faint to be seen without a telescope with a sensitive electronic detector.

The comet is expected to be brightest in February or March 2013, when it makes its closest approach to the sun. At that time, the comet is expected to be visible low in the western sky after sunset, but the bright twilight sky may make it difficult to view.

Over the next few months, astronomers will continue to study the comet, which will allow better predictions of how bright it will eventually get. Wainscoat and Mānoa astronomer Henry Hsieh cautioned that predicting the brightness of comets is notoriously difficult, with numerous past comets failing to reach their expected brightness.

The comet is named C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Comets are usually named after their discoverers, but in this case, because a large team, including observers, computer scientists, and astronomers, was involved, the comet is named after the telescope.

Read the news release.