Telescope not necessary for viewing comet

A comet first sighted by a telescope atop Haleakala is expected to be visible to the naked eye in Hawaii evenings from Thursday to March 13, according to the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Discovered by a team using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala two years ago, Comet PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 will appear above the western horizon at around 7 p.m. during those evenings, said an institute news release.

For prime viewing, residents should find a dark area with an unobstructed and cloudless view of the sky.

Although the coma, the heated gases and dust surrounding the nucleus of the comet, will be visible, the distinguishable tail made of streams of dust and gas can be seen only when viewed through binoculars.

This will be the comet’s only pass by Earth. PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 will receive a gravitational “kick” from nearby planets, propelling it out of the solar system, the institute said. This comet differs from those like Halley’s comet, which have an elliptical orbit and return to the solar system again and again, though the round trip may take hundreds or thousands of years.

Comets are formed out of ice and dust, but as they approach the sun, the heat changes the ice to gas.

This transformation results in the formation of the tail and coma.

Astronomer Richard Wainscoat, a member of the PANSTARRS discovery team, said the team members were a little nervous when they first discovered the comet. Every night, the institute inspects between five and 10,000 objects that are millions of miles away, and many are too fuzzy to identify, he said.

To their relief, their discovery of PANSTARRS was confirmed by the Mauna Kea observatories the following night.

The comet, which is moving from the southern half of the sky to the northern half, is most visible when it is closer to the sun, Wainscoat said. March 13 may be best time to take a photo of the comet, because it will appear just below the thin crescent moon, the news release said.

Scientists expect the comet to be as bright as the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt, said the news release.

Wainscoat added that Comet ISON, discovered by the International Scientific Optical Network in Russia, will travel close to the sun and is expected to be brighter than the PANSTARRS comet.

The ISON comet, which is expected to be viewable in late November to early December, could be brighter than the last two comets that could be seen in Hawaii – comet McNaught (2007) and comet Hale-Bopp (1997).

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at