How to See Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS)
Let’s say you’re not the person in your social group who can point out the astrophysical errors in the movie’s opening shot. Contact. But let’s also say you are someone who can easily spot the Big Dipper on a moonless night. Then you’ve come to the right place to ask yourself, “Hey uh, what was the deal with that comet people were talking about the other day? Can I still see this?”
C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS), sometimes called the “megacomet” K2, made its closest approach to Earth on Thursday, July 14, at a distance of about 168 million miles, or about 1.8 times the distance between the Earth and the sun. Astronomers with telescopes have been tracking it for some time and watching its tail grow as it nears, and now Earth is saying goodbye to the comet as it departs. But if you’re reading this and it’s still summer, the currently receding comet is currently moving in a direction that will bring it closer to the sun, and chances are you’ll still be able to watch it if you own , or can borrow, a telescope.
What is C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS)?
The comet appears to originate from the Oort Cloud, a likely collection of ice and rock far beyond the last of the planets on the outskirts of our solar system. The chunks are too faint to see – even with the James Webb Telescope – which is why we can only assume the Oort Cloud is there (that’s a pretty educated guess, so no need to become a truther of the Oort cloud).
The Sun’s gravity sometimes pulls one of these chunks out of its comfort zone into the Oort Cloud and our general vicinity, and then it’s show time. When the sun’s rays cause comets to release gas, this is how they get their telltale glow and sometimes become visible to the naked eye – although C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) is not looks like it will be one of those cosmic attention pigs anytime in the near future.
But what makes Comet K2 unique is that while other comets appear again and again, this appears to be this comet’s first journey into our inner solar system. This unusual status seems to have made its gaseous halo even more huge and bright, as it would mean that high concentrations of gas would be expelled.
Does this mean that this comet is heading towards Earth?
Our research indicates that people looking for information about this comet are also checking to see if it will kill us all, possibly because they recently watched a Leonardo DiCaprio movie about it. The short answer to this question is: Relax. A collision between this comet and Earth is not even a remote possibility. Yes, it was discovered by top comet spotters from the Hawaii-based PanSTARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) in 2017, and this outpost is one of Earth’s watchful sentinels, ensuring that there are no deadly “Near-Earth Objects”. surprise us. But it was never flagged as a potential hazard. Also, as I said before: he is now moving away from us, not closer.
So how can I see this comet?
If you’re new to this, it might take some trial and error. You will be very lucky if you manage to observe the comet on your first night with your new telescope.
Start any night you can see the stars and get used to finding the constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Bearer. When you find it, the comet will be a small dot in that constellation. You can repeat this on your computer using the interactive sky map on Skyandtelescope.org. Using an even more detailed star map, you should be able to find the star cluster IC 4665 within Ophiuchus. Look for a cluster that, if you squint, seems to spell the word “Hi”, and that’s IC 4665.
You’ll want the sky to be as dark as possible the night you spot C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS), so watch just before moonrise – which you can figure out by looking at a moon information chart for your area. , or wait until the new moon. This could make timing tricky, so figure out what works for you.
From our perspective on Earth, C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) is a moving target inside Ophiuchus, traveling through or near IC 4665, and moving slightly less than the diameter of the full moon each night. Spotting it will involve aiming your “scope” at the correct stellar quarter, then looking up, down, and around. If you have a powerful telescope, you might be able to see the tail, while the comet seen through a weaker telescope will look more like a glowing ball of hair.
Or, since comets are unpredictable, there’s always the possibility that as it increases its proximity to the sun by December, some unknown chemical reaction on the comet itself will cause it to spontaneously glow, making it even more visible. It might even get so bright it can suddenly be seen without a telescope, as happened with Comet Holmes in 2007. Most sources, however, say you have until late summer to spot it. So good luck this summer and make sure you wear mosquito repellent.