Science Space Porn

Viewing the PANSTARRS comet in Rochester this weekend

No matter how many images you see of the surfaces of planetoids and planets, the brilliant illumination dust clouds and galaxies, nothing brings space home quite like seeing it with your own two eyes in real-time. That’s what makes the arrival of two comets in the year 2013 especially exciting for all of those who love space porn like I know we here at DFE do.

Comet PANSTARRS has been visible in the Southern Hemisphere for while, but starting Friday night, the comet makes its Northern debut.. for those with the right conditions to see it.

Courtesy of Universe Today, a graph showing the predicted brightness curves for the PANSTARRS comet. Peak will be Sunday, but weather here looks to be a bit cloudy.

Here in Rochester, conditions look to be strictly catch-as-catch-can, with all the major networks in town and The Weather Channel predicting breaks in the clouds by the afternoon. But you’ll need to be out-of-town – probably out of the ‘burbs, too – with a decent set of binoculars to really appreciate this relatively dim comet. According to @NASA JPL:

By March 8, comet PANSTARRS may be viewable for those with a totally unobstructed view of the western horizon for about 15 minutes after twilight. On March 10, it will make its closest approach to the sun about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) away. As it continues its nightly trek across the sky, the comet may get lost in the sun’s glare but should return and be visible to the naked eye by March 12. As time marches on in the month of March, the comet will begin to fade away slowly, becoming difficult to view (even with binoculars or small telescopes) by month’s end. The comet will appear as a bright point of light with its diffuse tail pointing nearly straight up from the horizon like an exclamation point.

The key as always with spotting a comet is to get out somewhere flat with as little artificial light as possible. This time of year, if you can find someone with a farm whose willing to let you and your weird friends hang out in the middle of a field, that would be just about perfect. If you do, this blog would greatly appreciate any photos you can snap of the event! By all means, please contact us and share your photos!

Space Porn

The comet coming in fall that could be brighter than the moon

Just yesterday, we reported on NASA’s use of “Solar Grazing Comets” to study the magnetic field of our Sun. But today, I want to talk about another SGC that has a lot of people in the space community very, very excited.

No, it doesn’t look like much right now. But that’s because ISON is very far away from the Sun. Once it gets closer and the Sun’s heat begins to create the atmosphere around the comet that creates the glow and tail we all generally know comets to have, then we’re going to see something amazing. We will hopefully see a comet that outshines the moon for at least an evening or two.

Because astronomers believe that ISON’s composition is similar to that of a comet that passed in 1680 and was reported to have been as bright. How do they know what the composition of the comet from 1680 was? Well, I don’t have the foggiest notion, and neither do most of the reports I’m reading.

However, most comets including this one are believed to come from the Oort Cloud, a hypothesized haze of ice and rock nearly a lightyear away from our Sun and a quarter of the distance between our Sun and our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri. It is believed to be composed of the last snowy bits of material that formed our solar system and exists at the hypothetical edge of our Sun’s gravitational pull.

Astronomers predict that ISON will make its presence known in the night sky around October of this year. The moon-dimming display depends on a couple of things, however. Since heating up a ball of space snow has about as much chance of breaking it apart in space as it would on Earth, there’s every chance that ISON may just fracture into a bunch of smaller comets. Secondly, the comet has to come close enough to the Sun to create a tail, but not so close that it just gets disintegrated altogether. The current estimate is that ISON will pass within 800,000 miles of the Sun. That’s about 100 times closer to the Sun than the Earth. Mercury, by contrast, is about 36,000,000 miles from the Sun.

One interesting and unique ripple in this story is the fact that our Mars Curiosity and Mars Orbiter should be in a position to give us close up views of ISON’s passage before we get good views here on Earth. Imagine that? Pictures of a comet passing another world, then seeing it pass ours.