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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

WATCH A COMET TONIGHT AT SUNSET


If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you can see the Pan-STARRS comet for the first time this evening.  The view above is a graphic of what to expect.  You could possibly have seen it last night, actually, but there was probably too much sunlight:


Thus, if you miss it this evening, watch tomorrow, or the day after, or...  Here is what Michael Goh saw one hour after sunset from Perth, Australia earlier this month:


And by Alex Cherney from Melbourne, Australia:


Or a close-up from Terry Lovejoy, also from Australia:


So why bother when I've given the show away?  Well, when was the last time you saw a real comet in the sky?  Astronomical viewing predictions are not exactly astrophysical science.  At one time, the expectation was a brightness magnitude of -4 (Venus), then 0 (Alpha Centauri A and Vega), and now, probably +1 (Capella B and Spica).  In other words, bring binoculars, just in case, even though those Australian magnitudes look awfully bright to me.

I'm making a relatively big deal about all this because Pan-STARRS was found by my University of Hawaii nearly two years ago.  That strange name is not like Halley's Comet (which, sadly, will not return until 2061--but I saw the 1986 version, from a ship, where everyone got seasick, and I'm being nice--try using a telescope to do this and you can appreciate why).  No, Pan-STARRS is not a person, but stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, an astronomical system located on the summit of Haleakala, Maui (left).  

Learn about the Future of Astronomy in Hawaii through a Power Point prepared by Nick Kaiser, principal investigator of this telescope, and Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the Institute for Astronomy.  (They are in the photo to the right.) The current array is abbreviated PS1, with PS2 coming on line this year.  Ultimately, too, PS4, at a total cost of $100 million, a lot of money, but tolerable, compared to Curiosity on Mars, with a bill of $2,600 million, or $2.6 billion, and has yet to find anything new.  Of course, NASA had to say something, so just today there was a blurb about a rock sample that "could have supported living microbes."  Terrific!

Won't go into the details, but comets come from the Kuiper Belt, beginning with once-planet Pluto and extending into outer space, and the Oort Cloud ( the largest ringwhich, curiously enough, no one has yet seen), located way out there in space, about a third of the way to Proxima Centari.  Both Pan-STARRS and Halley's come from this hypothetical Oort Cloud.    Pan-STARRS left the cloud 4 million years ago, roughly around the time Lucy lived in Ethiopia. Kind of makes you feel insignificant in space and time.

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