Everything You Need to Know: Start Watching for Comet PANSTARRS Now!

2013-03-10 by Diana fka Desi Foxx

Comet PANSTARRS by Terry Lovejoy in Australia

Comet PANSTARRS by Terry Lovejoy in Australia

EARTH SKY – It’s time to start watching for Comet PANSTARRS, one of two comets to get excited about in 2013. PANSTARRS viewing guide here.

There’s a lot of excitement about Comet ISON, which might become a very bright comet, visible across the globe, by the end of 2013. But don’t wait for Comet ISON to look outside for a comet. A fainter comet – called PANSTARRS – has been sighted already in Northern Hemisphere skies. It’s low in the west after sunset – and probably brightest around the time it’s closest to the sun on March 10, 2013. The Southern Hemisphere has been seeing PANSTARRS already for some weeks. skyandtelescope.com reported on March 8 on one of the first U.S. sightings:

Longtime amateur astronomer Jim Brant writes from Homestead, Florida, latitude 25° N: “I spotted the comet naked eye at 7 p.m. tonight (March 7). It is much fainter than recent photos from the Southern Hemisphere, which is expected as they are time exposures. It looks like a faint straight jet contrail, about a degree long and fainter than I expected. It’s a pretty sight in my f/6.25 80mm University Optics refractor at 11x. Thought you might like to know it’s finally visible here.”

In other words, for latitudes like those in the southern U.S., PANSTARRS is visible now. The latitudes where PANSTARRS can be seen low after sunset are moving northward each day. The comet is low in the west after sunset – perhaps not prominent in the midst of evening twilight – but there if your sky is clear to the horizon and unobstructed by trees or tall buildings.

Look below for a Comet PANSTARRS viewing guide.

Comet Panstarrs at Burns Beach in northern metropolitan area in Perth, Western Australia. Rocks off the coast with birds and a small fishing boat. One hour after sunset in early March. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Michael Goh. Thank you, Michael!

Comet PANSTARRS as captured by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in Australia. View larger.

EarthSky Facebook friend Luis Argerich in Buenos Aires posted this cool photo of Comet PANSTARRS on February 12. The comet is the fan-shaped object on the left. Luis caught the comet in the same photo as an iridium flare. Click here to learn about iridium flares. Awesome capture, Luis. Thank you! View larger.

Comet PANSTARRS in early March 2013

As seen from mid-northern latitudes, Comet Panstarrs might become visible with an optical aid around March 7 or 8. However, the comet will sit in the glow of dusk and will set around 40 to 45 minutes after sunset. By March 12, the comet will be considerably higher in the sky and will set around 75 minutes after sun. What’s more, the comet will be next to the waxing crescent moon on the North American evening of March 12.

March 5, 2013. Comet PANSTARRS passes closest to Earth at 1.10 Astronomical Units, (AU). One AU equals one Earth-sun distance, about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. In other words, this comet will pass slightly farther from us than our distance from the sun. No worries about it hitting us.

Starting about March 7, 2013. PANSTARRS will appear above the western horizon after sunset for viewers at U.S. latitudes. To see it, you will need an unobstructed, cloudless view of the west after sunset. It is best to pick a dark spot, away from streetlights. Look in the sunset direction, as soon as the sky darkens. The comet will be just above the horizon. In Los Angeles (34° N) last night (March 6), observers at Griffith Observatory announced they would try to spot the comet. For that latitude, the comet was only 3° above the horizon 20 minutes after sunset. It would have been a very tough observation! I didn’t hear that they spotted it, but, remember, the comet will get easier to see each day from latitudes like those in the U.S.

March 10. This is a good time to look for Comet PANSTARRS from U.S. latitudes. The comet should be visible, and it’ll be at its brightest. Why? The comet passes closest to the sun – as close as our sun’s innermost planet, Mercury, about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) away – on March 10. Comets are typically brightest and most active around the time they are closest to the sun when solar heating vaporizes ice and dust from the comet’s outer crust. Expect the comet to brighten quickly around this time. Look for it low in the west after sunset. Bring binoculars to help you spot it in the twilight sky.

Around March 12 and 13. Moonlight might interfere a bit with the darkness of the night sky, but there should be some wonderful photo opportunities as the young moon returns to the same part of the sky as the comet.

Comet PANSTARRS from mid- to late March 2013

Around March 12 and 13 there will be some great opportunities to photograph the comet near a thin crescent moon, in the west just after sunset. Chart via NASA.

Throughout March 2013. The comet could be visible in the Northern Hemisphere evening sky low in the west after sunset. It will move northward each evening during March 2013 as it moves from being in front of the constellation Pisces to being in front of the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda. At this time, the comet might have a bright dust tail, and perhaps visible to the unaided eye or binoculars. It should, at least, if it lives up to expectations. Remember to look for the comet in the vicinity of the waxing crescent moon on March 12, 13 and 14. The comet swings above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26.

Comet PANSTARRS in April 2013

Comet PANSTARRS on the evening of April 6, 2013. This view is to the west that evening. The oval near the comet is the Andromeda galaxy. You’ll want a dark sky to see both the comet and the galaxy. Chart via Dave Eagle at www.eagleseye.me.uk. Used with permission. View larger.

April 2013. No matter how bright it gets in March, the comet will surely fade as April arrives, as it moves away from the sun and back out into the depths of space. But it will be located far to the north on the sky’s dome and will be circumpolar for northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. That means it might be visible somewhere in the northern sky throughout the night for northern observers. What’s more, the comet will be near in the sky to another beautiful and fuzzy object in our night sky, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the nearest large spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. If the comet truly is bright then, and if it still has a substantial tail, it’ll be an awesome photo opportunity!

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) was exceedingly faint when Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope discovered it on June 6, 2011.

The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii discovered this comet in June 2011. Since comets carry the names of their discoverers, it has been designated C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Only the largest telescopes on Earth could glimpse Comet PANSTARRS when it was first discovered, but amateurs telescopes began to pick it up by May 2012. By October 2012, its surrounding coma was seen to be large and fine at an estimated 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) wide.

By the way, Comet PANSTARRS is considered a non-periodic comet. It probably took millions of years to come from the great Oort comet cloud surrounding our solar system. Once it rounds the sun, experts say, its orbit will shorten to only 110,000 years. It is, for sure, a once-in-a-lifetime comet.

Bottom line: It’s time to start watching for Comet PANSTARRS, one of two comets to get excited about in 2013. Comet PANSTARRS will be brightest and visible to Northern Hemisphere observers around March 10, 2013. Comet PANSTARRS viewing guide in this post. The other is Comet ISON, which might become a daylight comet in late 2013.

Big sun-diving Comet ISON might be spectacular in late 2013

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