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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Seriously, Pan-STARRS Keeps on Delivering

By Phil Plait

I know, I know, but câmon? How can I not post more amazing footage and picture of Pan-STARRS, a comet so bright you can spot it naked eye?

Itâs getting to the point now where I see so many pictures that it takes something pretty special to want to share itâ¦so how about freaking THIS?

Seriously. That was taken by Tommy Eliassen on Mar. 19 in Meløy, Nordland, Norway. I love how the tail of the comet coincidentally is almost exactly perpendicular to the sweeping arc of the aurora. Thereâs a connection between the comet and the aurora, though itâs indirect and tenuous. Literally.

Subatomic particles are blown away from the Sun in the solar wind. They hit the comet and in part create the tail sweeping back from the main head of the comet. But the solar wind also blows to Earth, where the particles are netted by our planetâs magnetic field and channeled down toward the ground. They slam into the air, causing it to glow. The green you see here is from excited atomic oxygen 100 km or so over the Earthâs surface, shaking off the extra energy they received from those fast-moving solar electrons. Together, the comet and the aurora make for an eerie, silent, and beautiful sight.

Closer to homeâmy home, at leastâBoulder photographer Patrick Cullis took a fantastic time-lapse video of the comet setting over my home townâs iconic Flatirons:

The Flatirons are sedimentary sandstone pushed up 30-80 million years ago as the Rocky Mountains poked through the Earthâs crust, just to add a little deep-timey geological thrill to this. Around the 37-second mark in the video you can see lights on them as climbers make their way around the rocks. Itâs common to see people free-climbing the Flatirons hundreds of meters above the ground; that is, using no equipment except their hands and feet. Itâs terrifying, but amazing.

Finally, because I want to make a point: I was out the other night to see the comet and took some pictures myself. Iâm actually rather pleased with how this one came out:

I just got a Canon Rebel T4i with an 18-135mm lens, and this is my first outing with it. I used to shoot with an SLR all the time in high school, but itâs been a while, so Iâm relearning everything. Focusing was a problem, but I think Iâm getting the hang of it. This shot was a 10-second exposure at f/5.6 and at 135mm (with the camera set to automatically take a low-light calibration frame, which Iâd love to lecture you about because itâs awesome but that will wait for another day). The long streak is an airplane heading southwest.

The comet was easily visible in binoculars, and I could just see it with my naked eye low to the horizon just after sunset, a bit north of west. My point is that itâs not hard to see; itâs just that you have to be ready as soon as the sky is dark. And it doesnât take fancy equipment to get pictures of it; an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera will do it as long as you have a tripod or some other way of keeping it steady.

This is a fantastic chance to take some amazing astronomical pictures of an object we wonât ever see again after this pass. Weâll be getting more bright cometsâincluding one this winter!âbut Pan-STARRS will never come this way again. If you can, I truly hope you take the chance to take a look.

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