Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

It's a's a's a COMET!

Greetings astronomy fans!

Well, it's here!  The first of the two comets touted to put on great shows in our skies this year.  Comet PanSTARRS has arrived!

Yep.  It's here

Okay, sorry if I sound a little bummed.  But I'd give my right arm to be in the southern hemisphere.  They've had extraordinary views of Comet PanSTARRS for quite some while now...and Comet Lemmon too!  And Comet McNaught last year!  It's been a veritable comet bonanza for our friends down under...and dang it, I am jealous!

But all is not lost here in the great white North.  I tried to see Comet PanSTARRS last night, but lingering clouds and light pollution made it impossible (I did see a fantastically young crescent Moon, however - youngest I've ever seen!).  But it should get easier tonight, as the comet is inching itself away from the Sun day after day.  That's going to both help (further from the Sun means it will be in a darker sky and easier to see) and hurt (further from the Sun means the comet itself will be a dimmer object) - but over the next couple of days we'll have our best chance to see this little interloper.  So how do we do that?  Here are some tips!

  • Find a location with as little light pollution as possible.  Get away from as many city lights as you can.
  • This same location also needs to have as flat a western horizon as possible.  The more sky you can see to the west, the better.
  • Start looking to the west just after sunset.  Focus your attention to the left of the brightest sunset glow.
  • Look for a very slender crescent Moon.  It will be up and to the left of the sunset.
  • Once you see the Moon, look between the Moon and the sunset glow for the comet!
A finder chart for Comet PanSTARRS.  Courtesy

Trust me, it will not be easy to see.  Binoculars may come in handy, but use them carefully and ONLY after the Sun has completely dipped below the horizon.  Seeing a comet is not worth losing an eye for.

A camera will help a lot, if you are confident enough to try it and have one of those "old-fashioned" cameras you can force to leave the shutter open for more than a tenth of a second.  Witness the power of the two-second exposure:

Comet PanSTARRS from Louisiana on March 12.  Image by Mike B. Courtesy Cloudy Skies Telescope Reviews.

So, sadly, Comet PanSTARRS is fainter than we hoped it would be by now.  Comets are tricky beasts - chunks of ice and rock left over from the early days of the solar system's formation.  When they dive close to the Sun like this one has, the ices warm and turn directly to gas, creating an often intricate and beautiful tail of materials stretching for millions of miles.  But the brightness of a comet is determined by the amount of ice as compared to rock (ice is shiny and bright and rock is dull and dim), so there's never really a good way to know if a comet is going to be bright or not...until it arrives.  Also, this appears to be Comet PanSTARRS first (and possibly only) trip close to the Sun, so the intense heating may have driven all the ices off, leaving not much left for us to see now that the comet has rounded the Sun.

I wish you all the best of luck in your efforts to see Comet PanSTARRS...and never fear, there's still Comet ISON to come later this year.  It's being touted as the "Comet of the Century" - but of course, we'll just have to wait and see.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

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