Distant Suns Astronomy App Makes Tracking Comet Pan-STARRS Easy
In the next couple of weeks you will likely hear much about a comet with the decidedly unglamorous name of “Pan-STARRS” (or technically: “Comet C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS”). The first significant naked eye comet since Comet McNaught in2007, Pan-STARRS is already visible to the southern hemisphere and brightening steadily each day.
Dozens of comets are discovered each year, most quietly anonymous, meekly shining at magnitudes that require very good telescopes to see. Only the big and dramatic ones reach naked eye visibility. On the average, such comets come around about every 4 or 5 years so we’re due. Comets are made up of water ice, gasses such as methanol and hydrogen cyanide mixed in with dust and rocks, all from the earliest days of the solar-system, providing astronomers with a unique window into those times. Even so, while the big comets can be very impressive with tails tens of millions of km long, the actual nucleus can be on the scale of a few km across making a comet the “closest thing to nothing that can be called something.”
Comets are typically named after their discoverers, usually a lone astronomer or two who might have to spend thousands of hours in the dead of night scanning the heavens before going into work. Comet Holmes was discovered by British astronomer, Edwin Holmes in 1892, and astronomer Robert McNaught has his named attached to 38 different comets. However this comet was discovered by the automated Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, located in Hawaii and used to spot possible Earth crossing asteroids.
With the latest release of Distant Suns (max) for iOS, you may follow the comet over the next couple of months. Current expectations is that it will brighten up to about first magnitude, or roughly as bright as the major stars in Orion. Look towards the west after sundown, and you should see quite a sight.
In the fall however is Comet ISON, which is currently expected to be the most brilliant comet in the past century and possibly even visible in day time. And as always, Distant Suns will be there, (but I rather doubt if you’ll need it to spot the thing).
Download Distant Suns in the App Store.