Astronomers discover a rare comet

Astronomers discover a rare comet
The Panstarrs-1 telescope atop Haleakala
The Panstarrs-1 telescope atop Haleakala

By Teri Okita – bio | email

MANOA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Astronomers at the University of Hawaii - Manoa spend their days searching the final frontier for any signs of movement. In their quest to find wayward asteroids that may be tumbling towards earth, they made a rare discovery this month that you'll likely be able to see for yourself.

To the untrained eye, a dot on a telescope image doesn't look like much. But you'll be catching a lot more of comet C2011L4 soon. "Everyone in the world should be able to see it, if it does what we hope it will do," says UH astronomer, Richard Wainscoat.

Wainscoat and his fellow UH astronomers made the unexpected and fascinating find in early June. The Panstarrs-1 telescope atop Haleakala caught the rare, new comet moving its way across space. "It's coming from very, very far out in the solar system, and it's going to come very close to the sun," says Wainscoat.

So close, that scientists anticipate we'll be able to see it with the naked eye sometime in March 2013 - making this comet standout from all the others. Usually, we can't see them without a telescope.

Comets are accumulations of ice, rock, and dirt, and because they're mostly frozen, they're considered preserved relics.

"We think of them as leftover bits from the formation of the solar system," says UH astronomer, Henry Hsieh. "So, they are very interesting to study because they can give us some information about where we came from."

Panstarrs-1 came on-line on Haleakala just over a year ago and is the most advanced survey telescope in the world. It was able to catch comet C2011L4 with its deluxe, digital camera - the largest in the world.

Astronomer Larry Denneau elaborates, "It's a camera that has 1.4 billion pixels per image. So that's like 500 or 1,000 I-phone images every single exposure." The camera takes about 500 total images each night.

Astronomers say they get one good comet like this every 10 years or so. They'll keep tracking it until spring 2013. "It's exciting to discover something that, perhaps, everyone in the world may see!" says Wainscoat.

Astronomers caution that predicting the brightness of comets is, historically, very difficult - so there's no 100% guarantee that we'll be able to see it with our eyes alone. However, if it continues, as planned, we will be able to. And don't worry. They say the comet will pose no danger to earth when it makes its appearance.

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