Astronomers using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, have discovered a faint comet whose orbit could bring it close to Earth and the Sun and make it quite bright 2 years from now. Imaged on the night of June 5/6, 2011, the comet is designated C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and was confirmed as a cometary object by astronomers Richard Wainscoat and Marco Micheli with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on nearby Mauna Kea.
Photo credit: Henry Hsieh, PS1SC
Now some 700 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from the Sun, the comet will move toward perihelion, its closest point to our star, in February or March 2013, when it will be visible low in the western sky after sunset. The comet will slide only about 30 million miles (50 million km) from the Sun at perihelion in a parabolic orbit, meaning it is “fresh” and has never come in close to the Sun before. This suggests it could be quite bright when at its closest to Earth and to the Sun, but, of course, as astronomers know all too well, predicting cometary magnitudes is notoriously difficult.
Nonetheless, the comet could be a nice naked-eye object, and we could get our first really nice comet in some years. Stay tuned!
For more on the comet, see the Astronomy.com news page
To view an animation, go to http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/users/hsieh/C2011L4_panstarrs/L4_labeled_ut_anim_color.gif.