Categories: Comets

What Do Comet PANSTARRS And Pinocchio Have In Common?

While comets can’t tell lies, they do sometimes grow long noses. As the weeks click by and our perspective on Comet L4 PANSTARRS changes, its original plume-like dust tail has shrunk and faded while a second tail just won’t stop growing.

Comet PANSTARRS’ orbital plane slices (marked by gray lines) slices right through the plane of the planets. Earth crosses that orbital plane on May 27. As we look up into space at the comet (blue arrow), all the dust it shed along its path – including a fine sheet of particles – stacks up to create a narrow, streak-like tail pointing toward the sun. The shorter, active dust tail sticks up and away (top). Credit: NASA with my own additions

I’m talking about the anti-tail, so called because it points toward the sun instead of away. Like the normal dust tail, an anti-tail is formed from fresh dust blown back from the comet’s head by the pressure of sunlight. As the comet continues along its orbital path, last week’s dust lingers behind, forming a “trail of breadcrumbs” in its wake. Right now those breadcrumbs look like a light saber straight out of Star Wars. Time exposure photographs show a striking sunward-pointing appendage more than 6 degrees (12 full moons) long. I’ve been keeping an eye on Comet PANSTARRS  here at home and can report that the anti-tail is plainly visible with a telescope under dark skies. Watching it grow from a short nub to the most dominant feature of this remarkable object has been the highlight of many a clear night.

Our current “edge on” view of Comet PANSTARRS is similar to looking down on it from high above the Earth’s north pole, where the dust stacks up to create a bright, streak-like tail. Credit: NASA/JPL/my own additions

Nothing stands still in our solar system. Earth’s moving, the comet’s moving. Later this week on May 26-27, Earth will pass directly through the comet’s orbital plane, which slices through the plane of the planets at a very steep angle. As the Earth approaches this intersection, we look up (from the northern hemisphere) and stare squarely into the long trail of dusty debris deposited by PANSTARRS during its recent swing around the sun in March. It gets better.

If we step back in time to May 9, we see that the anti-tail was neither as long nor as pronounced because the Earth was  further from the comet’s orbital plane. Because we were more broadside to the comet then, the dust sheet is much more obvious. It extends millions of miles into space but is only 5,000-10,000 miles thick. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Sunlight pushes the smaller particles into a vast, thin sheet or fan extending millions of miles into space well beyond the path traveled by the comet’s nucleus. Since we now see PANSTARRS almost “edge-on”, all that dust overlaps from our perspective to form a thick, bright line sticking out of the comet’s head. It’s as if we’re seeing the ghost of PANSTARRS from the recent past still lingering in space. If we could somehow see the whole works broadside, the comet would appear fainter, spread out and much more diffuse.

Simulated views of dust shed by PANSTARRS’ in its orbit around the sun. Dust piles up in the edge-on view to create a skinny, saber-like tail vs. a faint, broad tail (right).  Illustration: Bob King

The Milky Way stands out as a band of light distinct from the thin scree of stars for the very same reason; our gaze cuts edge-on through our galaxy’s flattened disk where stars are most concentrated.  Like comet dust, they pile atop one other  to create a distinct ribbon of fuzzy light slicing across the night sky.

Going back even further to April 10, the anti-tail (short stub to left of bright head) was just getting started. It’s completely dwarfed by the comet’s main dust tail and fan of tinier dust particles. Compare this photo to the current view. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

In the next few days the tail could grow considerably longer and intensify in brightness as we move closer to the comet’s orbital plane. Unfortunately the moon will be at or near full at the same time, making it tougher to fully appreciate this amazing apparition at least with binoculars and telescopes. Cameras will have better luck. Will that stop you from looking? I hope not. Either way, you can use this map to help you find Comet PANSTARRS and check it out yourself.

Map showing Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS’ location tonight through June 21. Positions are marked off every three nights with stars are shown to about 8th magnitude. Credit: created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

When you do spot the anti-tail, don’t be fooled. It may appear to be pointing at the sun, but it’s only dust spread along a path once tread.

A magnificent view of the very thin anti tail of Comet PANSTARRS, as seen on May 22, 2013 from near Payson, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
A negative image showing Comet PANSTARRS and its very thin anti tail, as seen on May 22, 2013 from near Payson, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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