General information about Comet PANSTARRS
We're all looking forward to Comet ISON, a comet that has the potential to become a very bright comet. That will be visible at the end of this year, but we don't have to wait that long to see a comet in the night sky. Comet PANSTARRS, a paler comet, has already been spotted in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. The icy mass, officially named C/2011 L4 Pan-Starrs, is one that the entire would will be able to see beginning mid-March and up until early April.
The comet will be visible with binoculars or a telescope beginning on March 8. Following this day, the comet will become brighter, and could be seen without the use of any special equipment. That's right, you'll be able to see the comet with just your eyes. There are already reports that the comet has been as bright as stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
PANSTARRS was first discovered in June 2011, by the Pan-Starrs telescope (short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) stationed atop the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii. At the time, it was no more than a faint celestial object more than a billion kilometers in the distance. Many astronomers believe that the comet originated in the Oort Cloud, an area in space with an abundance of comets. The comet has been heading towards the Sun for billions of years.
There are two type of comets. Periodic and non-periodic. Periodic comets are those we expect to see again in a matter of years after they've already passed. The non-periodic one's take much longer to cross our path. In the case of Panstarr, astronomers believe it to be a non-periodic comet, as it's the first time it is passing through the inner Solar System, and likely won't return for the next 100,000 years. This is a once in a lifetime event, and those who observe it will remember it.
On the tenth of March, the comet will make its closest approach to the Sun, flying at a distance of about 45 million kilometers. As it heats up, the dust and ice in the outer crust of Pan-Starrs turns into gas. This makes it extremely bright in the night sky. Solar wind and pressure from sunlight give the body its characteristic double tail.
How do I observe Comet PANSTARRS?
From our viewpoint on Earth, the comet will be very close to the sun. Comet PANSTARR is only observable during twilight, or just after sunset, when the sky is not completely dark.
While the comet will be closest to the Sun on March 10th, the best days to observe the comet in action will likely be March 12th and March 13th. During these days, Comet PANSTARR will move away from the sun, and should be much easier to distinguish in the night sky. It will emerge in the western sky, not far from the crescent Moon. Astronomers expect the comet to become about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper.
The Moon phase is a thin crescent Moon at only 2%, which means that there will be minimal light interference as you observe the comet. After sunset, look west and probe the horizon. Using the Moon as a reference point, scan to the left of the Moon or below the Moon until you see the comet.
As the days continue to pass, the comet will appear later in the night and much higher up in the sky. Eventually, as the month of April approaches, Comet PANSTARRS will vanish from the night skies and into the depths of space where it can only be viewed with large telescopes.
If you happen to in an area where the horizon may be obstructed by building or trees, if possible, we recommend that you travel away from such objects. Look for state or city parks, or other safe viewing locations.
Please be aware that local conditions such as cloud cover and precipitation will also play a major role in how easily you will be able to spot Comet PANSTARR. You're good to go if you have a clear view of the west after sunset.
Should I use binoculars, a telescope, or just my naked eyes?
While you can certainly see the comet with no special equipment, using such equipment will improve your experience. You will see more of the comet, including finer details such as its double tail and head, with the use of binoculars or a telescope.