Comets are sort of special in the Solar System – they can put on quite a show with their, sometimes, long tails if close to Earth and, sometimes, a spectacular show at sunrise or sunset as they near the Sun (if they don’t burn up as they round the Sun). Some have known orbital periods, like the famous Comet 1P/Halley (many of you may recall its approach in 1985/86, and it is not due back in the inner Solar System until 2065) and for other comets it is their first time coming into the inner Solar System. Their origin, thought to be the Oort Cloud, is significantly farther than the orbit of Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, so much so, more distant that nearby stars can gravitationally affect them and send them towards the Sun.
Comet C/2016 R2 (PanSTARRS) is a rare blue comet in the eastern skies in early evening. Most, generally, are really faint, and, most, generally, are teal-colored. The color teal of typical comets is nearly centered on our eye’s night vision peak sensitivity. Comet C/2016 R2 (PanSTARRS) is a emitting gaseous Carbon Monoxide (CO) and is colored blue. Even in the 36-inch telescope we will not see blue, but these unique CO comets are certainly worth a look as its orbital period doesn’t put it in the vicinity of Earth until long after 2065!
Regarding (PanSTARRS) – Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System – it is a robotic imaging system operating in Hawaii and so many comets get their name on discovery. Many, many years ago all comets were found visually, then, with cameras they were discovered when much further out and orbits could be determined. Today, not only do we have digital cameras, much more sensitive than film cameras of yester-year, but robotic stations are scanning the skies every night comparing images for something that moved. Can comets still be discovered outside of a robotic operated station, absolutely! But robotic systems like PanSTARRS are tough to beat.
Steven Aggas is the Director at Apache-Sitgreaves Observatory, located in Overgaard, AZ, using the largest public viewing telescope in Arizona. Visit Apache-Sitgreaves.org for information on events and tickets.