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
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 seeing 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
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 or as pronounced because the Earth was  further from the comet's orbital plane. Credit: Michael Jaeger
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 view of looking at the dust shed in PANSTARRS' tail edge-on vs. broadside. Dust piles up in the edge-on view to create a skinny, saber-like tail. Illustration: Bob King
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.

Back on April 10 the anti-tail (short stub to left) was just getting its start. It's completely dwarfed by the comet's main dust tail and fan of tinier dust particles. Credit: Michael Jaeger
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. Stars are shown to about magnitude 8. Credit: created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
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 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.
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.

A Guide to Help You See Comet PANSTARRS at its Brightest

This is the big week so many of us in the northern hemisphere have been waiting for. Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS, which has put on a splendid show in the southern hemisphere, now finally comes to a sky near us northerners!

Sky watchers in Australia and southern South America report it looks like a fuzzy star a little brighter than those in the Big Dipper with a short stub of a tail  visible to the naked eye. The comet should brighten further as it wings its way sunward. Closest approach to the sun happens on March 10 at a distance of 28 million miles. That’s about 8 million miles closer than the orbit of Mercury.

Though very low in the western sky after sundown, the comet should be visible across much of the U.S., southern Canada and Europe beginning tonight March 8.

Comet PANSTARRS will be visible tonight through about March 19 for sky watchers living near the equator. Map is drawn for Singapore. All maps created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet PANSTARRS will be visible through about March 19 for sky watchers living near the equator. Map is drawn for Singapore. All maps created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

PANSTARRS’ low altitude presents a few challenges. Approaching clouds, general haziness and the extra thickness of the atmosphere near the horizon absorbs the comet’s light, causing it to appear fainter than you’d expect. A casual sky watcher may not even notice its presence. That’s why I recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars and using the map that best fits your latitude. Find a place with a wide open view to the west, focus your binoculars on the most distant object you can find (clouds are ideal) and then slowly sweep back and forth across the sky low above the western horizon

Comet PANSTARRS map for the southern U.S. March 6-21. Time shown is about 25 minutes after sunset facing west. Map is drawn for Phoenix, Ariz.
Comet PANSTARRS map for the southern U.S. March 6-21. Time shown is about 25 minutes after sunset facing west. Map is drawn for Phoenix, Ariz.

As the nights pass, PANSTARRS rises higher in the sky and becomes easier to spot for northern hemisphere observers while disappearing from view in the south. On the 12th, a thin lunar crescent will shine just to the right of the comet. Not only will it make finding this fuzzy visitor easy-peasy, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a beautiful photograph.

Comet PANSTARRS and thin crescent moon should be a striking site about a half hour to 45 minutes after sunset on March 12. Stellarium
Comet PANSTARRS and the thin crescent Moon should make a striking sight together about a half hour to 45 minutes after sunset on March 12. Stellarium

The maps shows the arc of the comet across the western sky in the coming two weeks for three different latitudes. Along the bottom of each map is the comet’s altitude in degrees for the four labeled dates. The sun, which is below the horizon, but whose bright glow you’ll see above its setting point, will help you determine exactly in what direction to look.

One of your best observing tools and the one closest at hand (pun intended) is your hand. Photo: Bob King
One of your best observing tools and the one closest at hand (pun intended) is your hand. Photo: Bob King

A word about altitude. Astronomers measure it in degrees. One degree is the width of your little finger held at arm’s length against the sky. Believe it or not, this covers two full moon’s worth of sky. Three fingers at arm’s length equals 5 degrees or the separation between the two stars at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper. A fist is 10 degrees. This weekend PANSTARRS will be 2-3 “fingers” high around 25 minutes after sunset when the sky is dark enough to go for it.

The northern U.S. is favored for this leg of the comet's journey. Notice how the comet arcs up higher in the sky compared to the southern U.S. and especially the equator. Map drawn for Duluth, Minn. The comet will remain visible for many weeks. Earth is closest to PANSTARRS on March 5 at 102 million miles.
The northern U.S. is favored for this leg of the comet’s journey. Notice how the comet arcs up higher in the sky compared to the southern U.S. and especially the equator. Map drawn for Duluth, Minn. The comet will remain visible for many weeks. Earth is closest to PANSTARRS on March 5 at 102 million miles.

To find PANSTARRS, locate it on the map for a particular date, note its approximate altitude and relation to where the sun set and look in that direction. Assuming your sky to the west is wide open and clear, you should see a comet staring back. If you don’t find it one night, don’t give up. Go out the next clear night and try again. While Comet PANSTARRS will fade over the next few weeks, it will also rise higher into a darker sky and become – for a time – easier to see. I also encourage you to take out your telescope for a look. You’ll see more color in the comet’s head, details in its tail and an intensely bright nucleus (center of the comet), a sign of how fiercely sunlight and solar heating are beating up on this tender object.

Sound good? Great – now have at it!