Comet C/2012 K1, also known as comet Pan-STARRS, was captured by NASA's NEOWISE probe as it swept across the sky on May 20, 2014.
Image credit: Hamant Kumar
When Comets Break Up
Nov. 16, 2012 --
Breaking up is hard to do. Unless you are a comet. I'd like to highlight some fantastic astrophotography captured over the last month as Comet Hergenrother began to split apart, break up, and go into outburst. This first image is by Hamant Kumar. His very first comet picture! Also, check out his neat animated GIF.
Image credit: Mike Phillips
Comets appear like interlopers in the night sky. For thousands of years, people thought they were harbingers of doom and unholy signs. Even into the 20th century, when it became known that comets were chunks of ice and rock visiting the inner solar system from the colder regions of the solar system, people panicked over the imagined threat of cyanide poisoning from the tail of Halley's Comet. But unless one smacks into our planet, doomsday-style, we can safely enjoy the spectacle. This view of Comet Hergenrother was imaged by Mike Phillips.
Image credit: Paul Stewart
Photographing a comet is an exciting opportunity for astronomers to capture a current astronomical event, as for the most part the night sky doesn't change all that much. Comet hunters watch the often unpredictable objects to see how they change as they get nearer to the sun. The sun's radiation causes some of the comet's frozen material to sublimate, or turn from a solid to a gas, creating the spectacular tails. This photo is by Paul Stewart, just barely over the rooftops.
Image credit: Stuart Forman
You can actually make an analog comet of your own with a bit of dirt, water, and dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide. Just be careful and wear safety gloves! With a bit of organic substances (like soda) and ammonia (like in window cleaner) you have a pretty good educational analog that also sublimates and makes a "tail" when you run around with it. This view was captured by Stuart Forman on October 20th with 3 x 5 min subs with Canon T1i at ISO 400 stacked with DSS with dark calibration, minor levels/curves in Photoshop, noise reduction using Colormancer noise reduction PS free plug in.
Image credit: Howard Maculsay
Sometimes, the sublimation goes too far, and the nucleus can break into smaller pieces, as Comet Hergenrother did on October 26th. The Gemini Telescope caught a tiny piece pulling away and creating its own tail. They are quick to note, however, that Earth is in no danger. Comet Hergenrother image captured by Howard Maculsay.
Image credit: Michael Rector
To learn more about Comet Hergenrother, you can hear all about it from Carl Hergenrother himself, discoverer of this particular snowball! And to see real-time images by these astronomers, do check out the weekly Virtual Star Party on Google+. I'll be the first to admit that I'm rubbish at handling a telescope, but these guys put on an incredible show of the night sky's treasures for anyone to enjoy. This final photo was captured by Michael Rector on Oct. 12.
MORE ARTICLES BY NICOLE GUGLIUCCI
A NASA probe recently spotted the dazzling Pan-STARRS comet as it hurtled through space against the backdrop of a distant galaxy.
Pan-STARRS is a fresh visitor from the outer solar system that lit up night skies last spring as it made one of its first approaches toward the sun. Officially christened comet C/2012 K1, it was discovered a few years ago by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, in Hawaii.
NASA released a stunning new series of images of Comet Pan-STARRS captured by the NEOWISE mission on May 20, 2014, when Pan-STARRS was 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) away from Earth. [Comet Pan-STARRS of 2013: Photos and Sky Maps for Stargazers]
Comet Pan-STARRS wandered into the inner solar system thousands and thousands of years after leaving the Oort cloud, a vast shell of icy bodies and debris beyond the orbit of Neptune.
The comet made its closest brush with Earth on March 5, 2013, passing about 102 million miles (164 million kilometers) away from the planet and brightening enough to be visible to the naked eye. The dirty ball of ice is still on its way around the sun and was visible to stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere this past June. Comet Pan-STARRS might become visible to Earthlings in the Southern Hemisphere in the fall — at least through a telescope — after it swings around the sun, according to NASA officials.
In the NEOWISE infrared images, the comet appears cross the starlit sky, sailing by the faraway spiral galaxy NGC 3726, which lies about 55 million light-years from Earth. The comet has two tails: a bigger one that is easier to see in the new images and likely comprised of gas and smaller particles, and a second more subtle southern tail that may be made up of dispersed grains of dust, according to NASA.
Comet Pan-STARRS also shines brighter in the longer wavelength band of NEOWISE's infrared camera, which suggests that it may be releasing lots of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, NASA officials said
The NEOWISE probe scans the cosmos to monitor and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (or NEOs) like asteroids and comets. The spacecraft was originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, but after its primary mission was completed in 2011, it went into hibernation. The spacecraft was reactivated in 2013 and reborn as NEOWISE.
More from SPACE.com:
Comet Pan-STARRS and the Moon: Spectacular Stargazer Photos
6 Fun Facts About Comet Pan-STARRS
Best Close Encounters of the Comet Kind
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