Comet making closest approach ever of Earth - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Comet making closest approach ever of Earth

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See Comet PanSTARRS This Week from SkyGuy Greg Redfern's Blog.

This week the western sky has a visitor from the deep depths of the outer solar system - Comet PanSTARRS. March 12-18 is prime time to view the comet as after this week it will start to fade. Officially known as Comet C/2011 L4 in order to distinguish it from the other comets discovered by the automated sky survey observatory Pan-STARRS http://pan-starrs.ifa.hawaii.edu/public/home.html in Hawaii, the comet will finally be visible to observers in the Northern Hemisphere.  

Comets http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Comets are named after their discoverers so Pan-STARRS gets the credit for finding this icy interloper from the outer solar system in June 2011.  

Comets are best described as dirty snowballs as they are frozen leftovers from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. They are thought to have a rocky or rubble pile center a couple of kilometers in diameter known as the nucleus that is covered with frozen water and gases.  

Over a trillion comets are thought to form the Oort Cloud http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=KBOs&Display=OverviewLong a vast spherical reservoir of comets very distant from the Sun. A passing molecular cloud, a collision with another cometary body or other gravitational encounters can cause a cometary body to begin its long fall into the inner solar system. Comets such as these and PanSTARRS pass through the solar system only once and are known as long period comets.

MORE ON SkyGuy Greg Redfern's Blog.

Comet making closest approach ever of Earth
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

MARCIA DUNN,AP Aerospace Writer

A recently discovered comet is closer than it's ever been to Earth, and stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere finally get to see it.

Called Pan-STARRS, the comet passed within 100 million miles of Earth on Tuesday, its closest approach in its first-ever cruise through the inner solar system. The ice ball will get even nearer the sun this weekend — just 28 million miles from the sun and within the orbit of Mercury.

The comet has been visible for weeks from the Southern Hemisphere. Now the top half of the world gets a glimpse as well.

The best viewing days should be next Tuesday and Wednesday, when Pan-STARRS appears next to a crescent moon at dusk in the western sky. Until then, glare from the sun will obscure the comet.

California astronomer Tony Phillips said the comet's proximity to the moon will make it easier for novice sky watchers to find it. Binoculars likely will be needed for the best viewing, he said, warning onlookers to avoid pointing them at the setting sun.

"Wait until the sun is fully below the horizon to scan for the comet in the darkening twilight," Phillips advised in an email sent from his home and observatory in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Pan-STARRS' name is actually an acronym for the Hawaiian telescope used to spot it two years ago: the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. The volcano-top telescope is on constant prowl for dangerous asteroids and comets that might be headed our way.

Thought to be billions of years old, the comet originated in the distant Oort cloud — a cloud of icy bodies well beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto — and somehow got propelled toward the inner solar system. It's never passed by Earth before, Phillips said.

A much brighter comet show, meanwhile, is on the way.

Comet ISON may come close to outshining the moon in November. It was discovered last September by Russian astronomers and got its acronym name from the International Scientific Optical Network.

Neither Pan-STARRS nor ISON pose a threat to Earth, according to scientists.

___

Online:

NASA: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130305.html

Space Weather: http://spaceweather.com/

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