Bad Astronomy

Beautiful Pan-STARRS Time-Lapse Video

Christoph Malin shot of Comet Pan-STARRS
Comet Pan-STARRS sets, as seen from the top of
Gaislachkogel Mountain in Ötztal, Austria.

Image credit: Christoph Malin

Comet Pan-STARRS is still going strong in the western skies for folks north of the Earth’s equator. It’s been cloudy here in Boulder (of course, because I just got a fancy new camera, sigh) so I haven’t seen it in a few days, though I’m hopeful for tonight.

But even if it starts to pour rain I can console myself that others are getting a spectacular view of it…even if they have to work for it. Astrophotographer Christoph Malin decided the only way to escape the clouds was to go above them, climbing 3000+ meters (9800 feet) to the top of Gaislachkogel Mountain in Ötztal, Austria. It was a brisk -20° C there, but he thinks it was worth it. He took enough pictures to create a fantastic time-lapse video of the comet:


I think it was worth it, too.

Hubble image of Comet LINEAR
In 2006, Hubble caught Comet LINEAR disintegrating as it approached the Sun. Click to enhalleynate.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)

Incidentally, is reporting the comet may be fragmenting. This happens sometimes with comets; they are essentially collections of rocks, pebbles, and dust held together by ice. That ice (ammonia, water, carbon dioxide, and more) turns into gas as the comet warms near the Sun, releasing the material that becomes the tail. Larger  chunks can dislodge in an event called calving. Sometimes the comet even disintegrates completely! We’ll have to see what happens with Pan-STARRS over the next few weeks. One calving does not a disintegration make, but it does show the comet is active and—like almost all its brethren—still able to give us a surprise or two.