Comet PanSTARRS: Once in a Lifetime

Comet PanSTARRS, properly known as C/2011 L4, is the first comet of 2013 to be visible to the naked eye. It was discovered in June 2011 by the PanSTARRS telescope based in Hawaii. Astronomers think it is making its first visit to the inner Solar System having spent all of its life in the Oort Cloud, a vast store of comets that lies way beyond the orbits of the planets. Comets are made of a mixture of ice, frozen carbon dioxide and dust, commonly referred to as a ‘dirty snowball’, and as they approach the Sun the ices and dust boil off leaving behind a spectacular tail. Comet PanSTARRS passed about 160 million km from Earth on 5th March then swung past the Sun on 10th March. It is now visible low in the western sky just after sunset and could remain visible until the end of the month. Although it will be another 106,000 years before this comet visits us again, Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) should be visible in October of this year, and many astronomers expect it to put on an even bigger show.

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