Falling in toward the sun from the frigid, outer reaches of the solar system, comet Pan-STARRS takes center stage in the evening skies over Earth this month.
Astrophotographers down under, like Alex Cherney from Melbourne, Australia (map), were the first to capture bright images (pictured) last week when the comet was still approaching the sun.
Starting March 10, the comet entered Northern Hemisphere skies and is expected to brighten even further as dust and gas is shed from its icy surface—the material will eventually grow into a tail.
Pan-STARRS was discovered, and named, by an asteroid survey program in Hawaii, which first spotted it in 2011 while the comet was still cruising between the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Two years later, it has brightened a million fold and has survived its close encounter with the sun without breaking up—which bodes well for skywatchers. (Read about the age of comets in National Geographic magazine.)
High and Dry
Taking advantage of the dry, high-altitude conditions of the Atacama desert in South America in early March, Yuri Beletsky captured comet Pan-STARRS peaking above the western horizon just after sunset.
The comet's tail always points away from the sun, no matter where it is in its orbit as solar radiation blasts material off its surface into space. Pan-STARRS' tail is reported to be approximately the width of the full moon's disk in the sky, but is expected to grow as more gas and dust is released in the coming week.
A camera attached to a backyard telescope exposes intricate structural details in this dramatic portrait of Pan-STARRS. Ignacio Diaz Bobillo captured a close-up view from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 3, showing off the white streams of gas and dust that make up the coma, or the comet's ephemeral atmosphere, and tail of this icy interloper. (Learn about the parts of a comet.)
Silhouetted against the craggy mountains around Vicuña, Chile (map), a tiny comet pierces the twilight skies. Emilio Lepeley caught sight of Pan-STARRS on March 5 while it was still heading toward the sun, but at its closest distance to Earth at 100 million miles (160 million kilometers).
Nature and technology sit side-by-side in this photo of comet Pan-STARRS as it passes over the CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. Using an off-the-shelf digital SLR camera with telephoto lens, John Sarkissian was able to capture the comet's bright coma and stubby tail in the twilight skies on March 5.
A Long Look
This was the amazing view of comet Pan-STARRS from the summit of Mount Wellington in Hobart, Tasmania, on March 4. Hanging low in the western twilight skies, Luke O'Brien says that while the comet was visible to the unaided eye as a fuzzy spot, it was truly revealed in all its glory through images like the 60-second exposure pictured.