Maui News

New Comet Discovered by UH Telescope on Haleakalā Could Become Visible in 2022

August 12, 2021, 2:00 PM HST
* Updated August 12, 10:27 AM
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  • Using the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope atop Hakeakalā, astronomer Robert Weryk discovered a new comet, seen in the center amidst stars in the background. Photo Courtesy: UH at Manoā
  • The Pan-STARRS1 telescope near the summit of Haleakalā at dawn. Credit: Rob Ratkowski
  • These telescopes on Maunakea on the Big Island also will study the new comet. Photo Courtesy: UH at Manoā
  • This image of the new comet was taken as it moved across the sky, with a faint tail extending to the southwest. Photo Credit: UH at Manoā

The University of Hawaiʻi’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope atop Hakeakalā discovered a new comet that may become bright enough for spectators to see with the naked eye as it moves closer to Earth in late April or early May 2022.

UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA) astronomer Robert Weryk first spotted the comet on July 26, 2021. After it was reported to the Minor Planet Center, telescopes from around the globe confirmed its cometary nature. The discovery was officially announced Aug. 1, and is named comet C/2021 O3 (PANSTARRS). 

At last check, the non-threatening object is about four times as far from the Earth as the Sun.

 “We are thrilled that Pan-STARRS has discovered a new comet that many people on Earth may be able to see,” said IfA Astronomer Richard Wainscoat, who leads the Near-Earth Object survey project with Pan-STARRS. “Although it may be a little challenging to see with the unaided eye, it should be easy to see with binoculars or a small telescope.”

 As Comet C/2021 O3 (PANSTARRS) approaches the Earth and the Sun next spring, the Sun’s radiation will warm the surface of the comet which will cause it to brighten as gas and dust are released from its icy surface. According to Wainscoat, the comet will be closest to the Sun on April 20, 2022, and will pass inside Mercury’s orbit. 

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UH astronomers will use telescopes on Maunakea to study the comet as it approaches and after it has passed the Sun. Some comets do not survive such close passages to the Sun. The best chance to see the comet may be in the first few days of May (before the Moon becomes too bright), when the comet will be low in the western sky after sunset. It may be easier to see from the neighbor islands than from Oʻahu, where there is more light pollution.

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Pan-STARRS searches the sky every night for moving objects in an effort to discover Near Earth Objects such as asteroids and comets that may pose a threat. The 1.8-meter telescope is a world leader in finding larger Near Earth Objects, and is funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office through its Near-Earth Object Observations Program.

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