Comet Pan-STARRS Wows Over Holland

Comet Pan-STARRS thrills Dutch observers of the Night Sky on March 14, 2013 shortly after sunset- note the rich hues. Shot with a Canon 60D camera and Canon 100/400 mm lens, exposure time 2 seconds, ISO 800. Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh
See viewing guide and sky maps below
Update – see readers photo below[/caption]

Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) is exciting amateur astronomers observing the night sky worldwide as it becomes visible in the northern latitudes after sunset. And now it’s wowing crowds in Europe and all over Holland – north to south.

Check out the beautiful, richly hued new photos of Comet Pan-STARRS captured on March 14, 2013 by Dutch astrophotographer Rob van Mackelenbergh.

“I took these photos in the southern part of the Netherlands on Thursday evening, March 14, at around 7:45 pm Dutch time with my Canon 60 D camera.”

“I was observing from the grounds of our astronomy club – “Sterrenwacht Halley” – named in honor of Halley’s Comet.”

Comet Pan-STARRS is a non-periodic comet from the Oort Cloud that was discovered in June 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope located near the summit of the Hawaiian Island of Maui.

The comet just reached perihelion – closest approach to the Sun – on March 10, 2013. It passed closest to Earth on March 5 and has an orbital period of 106,000 years.

Comet Pan-STARRS from Holland on March 15, 2013 at about 7:45 PM, shortly after sunset - Canon 60D camera, Canon 100/400 mm lens, exposure time 15 seconds, ISO 300.   Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh
Comet Pan-STARRS from Holland on March 14, 2013 at about 7:45 PM, shortly after sunset – Canon 60D camera, Canon 100/400 mm lens, exposure time 2 seconds, ISO 800. Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh

“Over 30 people were watching with me and they were all very excited, looking with binoculars and cameras. People were cheering. They were so excited to see the comet. But it was very cold, about minus 2 C,” said Mackelenbergh.

The “Sterrenwacht Halley” Observatory was built in 1987 and houses a Planetarium and a Celestron C14 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. It’s located about 50 km from the border with Belgium, near Den Bosch – the capitol city of southern Holland.

Comet Pan-STARRS was photographed from Sterrenwacht Halley - or 'Halley Observatory' in Holland.  Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh
Comet Pan-STARRS was photographed from Sterrenwacht Halley – or ‘Halley Observatory” in Holland. Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh

“It was hard to see the comet with the naked eye. But we were able to watch it for about 45 minutes altogether in the west, after the sun set.”

“The sky was completely clear except for a few scattered clouds near the horizon. After the comet set, we went inside the observatory for a general lecture about Comets and especially Comets Pan-STARRS and ISON because most of the people were not aware about this year’s pair of bright comets.”

“So everyone was lucky to see Comet Pan-STARRS because suddenly the sky cleared of thick clouds!”

Comet Pan-STARRS from Holland on March 15, 2013 at about 7:45 PM, shortly after sunset - Canon 60D camera, Canon 100/400 mm lens, exposure time 15 seconds, ISO 300.   Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh
Comet Pan-STARRS from Holland on March 14, 2013 at about 7:45 PM, shortly after sunset – Canon 60D camera, Canon 100/400 mm lens, exposure time 2 seconds, ISO 800. Credit: Rob van Mackelenbergh

“In the past I also saw Comet Halley and Comet Hale-Bopp, but these are my first ever comet photos and I’m really excited !”

“I hope to see Comet Pan-STARRS again in the coming days when the sky is clear,” Mackelenbergh told me.

Over the next 2 weeks or so the sunset comet may grow in brightness even as it recedes from Earth into darker skies. Right now it’s about magnitude 0.2.

So keep looking with your binoculars; look west for up to 1 to 2 hours after sunset – and keep your eyes peeled.

And report back here !

Ken Kremer


See a readers photo of sunset Comet Pan-STARRS below

Comet Pan-STARRS viewing graphic from NASA
Comet Pan-STARRS viewing graphic from NASA
Comet Pan-Starrs Sky Map. Viewing guide to find the comet low in the horizon after sunset.Credit: Space Weather.com
Comet Pan-Starrs Sky Map. Viewing guide to find the comet low in the horizon after sunset.Credit: Spaceweather.com

Comet Pan-STARRS: How Bright Will it Get?

Comet PanSTARRS on September 4, 2012 as seen from Puerto Rico. Credit: Efrain Morales/Jaicoa Observatory.

Early next year, a comet will come fairly close to Earth and the Sun — traveling within the orbit of Mercury — and it has the potential to be visible to the naked eye. Amateur and professional astronomers alike have been keeping watch on Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS (or PanSTARRS for short), trying to ascertain just how bright this comet may become. It will come within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of the Sun on March 9, 2013, which is close enough for quite a bit of cometary ice to vaporize and form a bright coma and tail.

But just how bright, no one can say for sure. Comets have been known to be very unpredictable (remember the breakup of Comet Elenin?) but some estimates have said this comet could become a naked-eye object, as bright as Vega or Arcturus next March.

Right now it is at about Magnitude 12, and skywatchers in the southern hemisphere observers will have a great view as this comet gets closer and brighter, as it will remain high in the sky. But right now, skywatchers in the northern latitudes are saying farewell to Comet PANSTARRS, as it becomes low on the horizon. Astrophotographer Efrain Morales from Puerto Rico took the image above on September 4th, 2012 at 00:31 UTC. “It was very difficult to image due to the forest tree tops and sunset light but I was able to capture it at high magnification,” Efrain told us. (He used an LX200ACF 12 inch, OTA, CGE mount, F10, ST402xmi Ccd, Astronomik Ir/UV filter at 2 minutes. )

Observers in the mid-northern latitudes won’t be able to see the comet again until after its perihelion, unfortunately. And after that, we may never see Comet PanSTARRS again.

The discovery of the comet was made in June 2011 with the 1.8 meter (70.7 inch) Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System or Pan-STARRS telescope on Mount Haleakala. PanSTARRS is looking to image the entire sky several times a month to hunt for Earth-approaching comets and asteroids that could pose a danger to our planet.

Richard Wainscoat and graduate student Marco Micheli confirmed the object was a comet using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea.

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

Astronomers at the PanSTARRS telescope say that making brightness predictions for new comets is difficult because astronomers do not know how much ice they contain. Because sublimation of ice (conversion from solid to gas) is the source of cometary activity and a major contributor to a comet’s overall eventual brightness, this means that more accurate brightness predictions will not be possible until the comet becomes more active as it approaches the sun and astronomers get a better idea of how icy it is.

It will be an adventure to follow the comet’s close approach, and we hope our readers and astrophotographers in the southern hemisphere will keep us posted!

See our previous article about this comet.