ALBANY, Ga. — Try hard not to miss this one. It won’t be coming back for (give or take)110,000 years.
The Pan-STARRS comet, expected any day, is warmly anticipated by astronomers around the world. With a little luck, it might even be seen with the naked eye.
Jim Friese, staff astronomer with the Wetherbee Planetarium, recommends a good set of binoculars — just in case.
Friese said that Pan-STARRS is known to be a “long-period”comet, or one that has journeyed from the “Oort cloud” about 1.5 light years distant, and will take around 110,000 years to make its orbit.
In comparison, Halley’s Comet, which was last seen in 1986, takes a mere 76 years to make the trip.
According to Friese, if Pan-STARRS actually does become visible without optical assistance (it may not) it will soon appear in the western portion of the sky on March 12 or 13 “just to the left of the crescent moon,” and move across the sky in the direction of the viewer’s right. It’s liable to fade very quickly, Friese says, but while it lasts it will probably be orange in color.
Pan-STARRS owes its unusual name to the state-of-the-art Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System, which was used in the comet’s discovery. The relatively new telescope system, developed at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astrology, is intended to detect dangerous asteroids or other astral bodies near the earth.
Another — possibly much greater — show expected later this year is the ISON comet, which has the potential to be seen even in daylight. ISON will travel through the inner solar system just 1.1 million miles from the sun. For the cosmically uninitiated, that’s a very close comet. In fact, the greatest threat to its promising light show is the chance it could be destroyed by the sun.
“If it isn’t taken out, it’ll be really spectacular,” Friese said. “But all comets are unpredictable. You never know what they’ll do.”