Flying high to meet a comet

Comet Pan-STARRS streaks across New Zealand's night sky.
Comet Pan-STARRS streaks across New Zealand's night sky.

A German travel agency is selling tickets for a flight to give 88 astronomy buffs a close-up view of one of two rare comets expected to pass Earth this year.

Eclipse Travel, based in Bonn, has joined charter agency Air Partner and airline Air Berlin to organise flight AB1000 on March 16 as comet Pan-STARRS passes through the solar system, 160 million kilometres from Earth.

The last comet to dazzle Earth's night-time skies was Comet Hale-Bopp, which visited in 1997. Comet 17P/Holmes made a brief appearance in 2007.

The Boeing 737-700 flight will zig-zag at 11,000 metres altitude for the viewing with an Air Berlin spokesman saying only 88 of 144 seats on board filled to ensure all travellers are close to a window.

"If the weather is very good and the air is clear you can certainly see the comet from Earth," Air Berlin's Karsten von dem Hagen said.

"But at an altitude of 11,000 metres you are most likely above the clouds. The air there is thinner, clearer and cleaner, which enables better observation of the comet."

An astronomy expert will be on board to explain the comet that Nasa described as a new comet that should be visible by the naked eye and about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper as it passes through the solar system this month.

Nasa scientists said the comet could send an amazing tail of gas and dust into the night sky, but the cosmic show could be less than dazzling if the comet falls apart under the heat and gravitational pull of its plunge toward the Sun.

The comet Pan-STARRS, discovered by astronomers in Hawaii in 2011, is the first of two comets expected to pass Earth this year.

The second is ISON, which is forecast to be one of the brightest comets ever seen and could even outshine the Moon when it flies by in late November.

Eclipse Travel is selling tickets for the two-hour flight for between US$470 (NZ$560) and US$663 (NZ$795), according to its website.


Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere can see Pan-STARRS at twilight, even without binoculars or a telescope. The comet came about 160 million kilometres from Earth on Tuesday.

"As Comet Pan-STARRS was setting on the southwestern horizon, its nucleus was visible to the naked eye," photographer Michael White from Manawatu said.

The comet, officially known as Comet C/2011 L4, was discovered in June 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, in Hawaii.

Comet Pan-STARRS is believed to be a first-time visitor to Earth after being gravitationally bumped out from the Oort Cloud, a repository of small icy bodies located beyond Pluto in the solar system's back yard.

Comets, which are comprised of minerals, rocks and ice, are believed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

As a comet approaches the Sun, some of its ice vaporises, creating an envelope of gas and dust, called a coma, around its body. The heating also generates two tails, each of which can be more than 1.6 million km long.

One tail is comprised of dust and the other is made of molecules ionized by sunlight.

Comet Pan-STARRS currently is inside the orbit of Mercury and brightening as it heads toward the Sun.

"Observers in the southern hemisphere say the comet can be seen with the naked eye even through city lights. Currently, it is about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper. The comet could become even brighter when it moves into Northern Hemisphere skies in the second week of March," reports.

Northern Hemisphere sky-watchers will get their chance to see the comet beginning on Thursday, though the best views may come later in the month.

Comet Pan-STARRS may just be the warm-up act for another celestial visitor due to arrive in November. If it is not destroyed by the Sun, Comet ISON has the potential to be as bright as a full moon, possibly even visible in daylight.

Comet ISON, which was discovered last year by two amateur astronomers in Russia, is expected to pass as close as 1.1 million kilometres from the surface of the Sun - about four times closer than Comet Pan-STARRS will pass during its closest approach to the Sun on Sunday.