PanSTARRS seen by STEREO spacecraft

UK-made cameras on NASA's STEREO spacecraft capture the spectacle


Credit: Dr Jackie Davies and the STEREO/HI team

This spectacular video showing Comet PanSTARRS was taken by the UK-made cameras on NASA's STEREO spacecraft. It shows a view of the comet as seen from the dual probes' orbits, at almost the same distance from the Sun as Earth's.

Prof Richard Harrison is Head of Space Physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) and Principal Investigator for the UK-led instruments on STEREO. "The two NASA STEREO spacecraft launched in October 2006 and orbit the Sun in a near 1 AU orbit. One spacecraft (STEREO-A) is over 130º ahead of the Sun-Earth line and one (STEREO-B) is over 140º behind," he says.

He described how, from these vantage points, the UK's Heliospheric Imagers – developed and operated by RAL and Birmingham University – can look back across the space between the Earth and Sun and image Earth-impacting solar clouds known as Coronal Mass Ejections, plus the odd comet.

Describing the video Richard Harrison says, "The two frames show 20º-wide views centred on the ecliptic plane. The left hand image is taken from STEREO-A, with the Sun only 4º off the right hand side of that frame; the right and image is from STEREO-B, with the Sun only 4º off the left hand side."

The images were taken on 15 March 2013 and, as well as Comet PanSTARRS, show stars down to 12th magnitude plus the faint signatures of a coronal mass ejection heading towards Earth.

"These events may look weak but they can involve a billion tonnes of gas being ejected from the Sun," describes Prof Harrison. "However, the STEREO-B image is dominated by the passage of the PanSTARRS comet, showing a beautiful tail structure. The comet nucleus is so bright that it creates 'blooming' along the column of pixels below it [when the individual pixels in a camera's imaging chip are overexposed]."



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