Monday, 1 April 2013

PanSTARRS and Other Comets

It was David H. Levy who said: "Comets are like cats; they have tails and they do precisely what they want," but in many ways Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) did precisely what was expected of it, in managing (just about) to reach naked-eye visibility, while never coming close to attaining the prominence of mid-nineties wonders, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp.

Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS)
Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS), Broadstairs, March 2013

After two failed attempts to see it, I first caught a glimpse of Comet PanSTARRS through a gap in the clouds on Wednesday 13 March, but it wasn't until the following Tuesday that the sky stayed clear long enough for me to get some images. As this is only the third comet I've photographed - after McNaught (arguably the first Great Comet of the digital age - for the Southern hemisphere at least) and Holmes (arguably the weirdest astronomical object of the digital age) - I was just pleased to get anything at all, but a potentially great comet could be waiting in the wings in the shape of C/2012 S1 (ISON), which will swing through the inner solar system later this year. I must stress the word "potentially" though because ISON might not even survive its close passage to the sun, leaving us with the ghost of what might have been. If comets are indeed like cats, then ISON may yet turn out to be of the Cheshire variety.

Comet PanSTARRS (stacked)
Comet PanSTARRS, 13 images stacked in RegiStax

And as if that wasn't enough, make a note in your diary for October 19, 2014, because that's when Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) is due to make a very close approach to Mars - so close in fact, that the possibility of an impact cannot yet be ruled out. If (and that's a very big "if") it did happen, it would be the most destructive event in the solar system since Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 carpet-bombed Jupiter in 1994 and could have profound effects on the Martian climate. Either way - direct hit or near-miss - it promises to be quite a show.

See also:
Planetary Society: Comet to whiz past Mars in October 2014
Planetary Society: Will comet Siding Spring make a meteor shower on Mars?