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Comet in tonight's sky discovered using MIT Lincoln Lab technology

Posted by Brock Parker  March 12, 2013 02:13 PM

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University of Hawaii Professor John Tonry holding an orthogonal transfer array created by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington. Photo courtesy the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A comet visible in the night sky with a pair of binoculars for much of this month was discovered using technology developed at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

The Pan-STARRS comet that is passing about 100 million miles from Earth could be visible, with clear skies, using binoculars or a small telescope tonight and Wednesday nights. It was discovered by a powerful telescope and camera in Hawaii that uses an array of charge-coupled devices developed at the Lincoln Labs.

Barry Burke, a laboratory fellow in the Advanced Imagers and Silicon Technology Group for the Lincoln Laboratory, said the technology has been used with the telescope to make a camera at the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) atop the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii.

“It’s a huge digital camera, and with this big digital camera they basically take snap shots of the entire sky,” Burke said.

Photos taken by the telescope, operated by the University of Hawaii, are then compared to photos taken from about a week before to see if anything has moved. In 2011, the method was used to discover the comet that now named after Pan-STARRS.

Burke said Lincoln Lab’s contribution to the camera has been the design and fabrication of an orthogonal transfer array that includes 60 charge-coupled devices chips that he said are “super sensitive.”

“They are like a huge version of the chips in your digital camera,” Burke said. “They have 23 megapixels each.”

Burke said the Lincoln Laboratory is now working on a second array that will be used for another telescope, and eventually a total of four may be built.

Astronomers use the telescope in Hawaii to watch for any asteroids or comets that could pose danger to Earth, but Burke said there is no chance of the Pan-STARRS comet getting too close.

But with clear skies, Star gazers won’t need a high-powered telescope to see the Pan-STARRS comet in the coming days.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s website, the best dates to see the comet may be March 12 and March 13 when the comet emerges in the western sunset sky not far from the crescent moon.

Burke said he’s been trying to spot the comet himself, but has not had any luck yet.

“I’m not sure I’ve looked in the right place,” he said with a chuckle.

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