Sunday, March 10, 2013

Comet PanSTARRS: Beware of the Internet Hype, but Check out the Sight

This coming week is perhaps the best time to look for a new comet in our evening skies, as long as your expectations are not set too high by some of the media attention it has received.   The comet – a chunk of ice and dirt from the distant backwaters of the solar system – is falling around the Sun with closest approach to our star on Sunday, March 10th.  

For the next week, it will be visible very low on the horizon if you look toward the west.  Tuesday and Wednesday it will be near the crescent Moon and may be easier to spot as a result.  But here are the problems beginners will need to keep in mind:

1. It’s so low in the sky you will need to look for it from a location where you have a clear view all the way down to the western horizon -- and no hills, buildings, or trees in the way.  Out by the ocean is really great.

2. Things on the western horizon are SETTING – going quickly below the edge of the sky.  That means there is a very short window to see the comet.  Try too early, and the sky is too bright with sunlight.  Try too late, and the comet is below the horizon.  About 30 - 45 minutes after sunset is what experts are recommending.

3. If there are clouds or fog in the western direction, or you’ve got bright street or car lights in your view, the comet may be too hard to see.  In March, weather is an issue in many locations.

4. And the comet is so far from Earth, it is not spectacularly bright. In general, binoculars may be needed to pick the head of the comet and the faint upward-pointing tail out of the glow of the sunset.

By the way, if you are wondering about the strange name for a comet, it’s taken from the automated survey telescope in Hawaii that discovered it in 2011: the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System


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