Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory
A close-up shot of comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS as seen from Mount Dale, Western Australia

Break Out Your Binoculars, or Not: Comet Pan-STARRS Gives Naked-Eye Sunset Show

ICTMN Staff
3/9/13

This weekend is the closest that comet Pan-STARRS gets to the sun, and it is predicted to glow brightly right above the western horizon just after our star sets on the evenings of March 9 and 10.

Having captivated southern hemisphere sky watchers for weeks, the comet first edged into our field of vision up north on March 7. Luckily our southern brethren have snapped some fantastic photos that do a good job of showing us where to look for Pan-STARRS. It is visible to the naked eye, though of course the best views will be through binoculars (the recommended method for locating it initially) or a telescope.

Last year’s sky phenomena were hard to miss, celebrated and visible as they were: annular and total solar eclipses, transit of Venus and all manner of celestial shenanigans between the moon, Jupiter and Venus. This year’s heavenly events are no less spectacular, but they’re subtle. Though trickier to observe, they are worth the trouble.

Comet Pan-STARRS is one such vision. Visiting us from the far reaches of the solar system for the first time since before humans walked the earth, this ancient clump of space dust and ice is hurtling toward the sun. It will loop around inside Mercury’s orbit, then head back out to space again to embark on a 110,000-year-long parabolic orbit, as far as astronomers can predict at the moment.

Sunday, March 10 is the best day to see Pan-STARRS, for then it will be at its brightest, according to Space.com. The comet’s closest approach to Mother Earth was on March 5, reported Astronomy magazine, when it was 102 million miles from us. It comes closest to the sun on March 9, tonight, at 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, at 28 million miles from the sun (as opposed to Earth’s 93 million miles), Astronomy said. The last time a comet was visible to the naked eye was Hale-Bopp, which cruised by in 1997, Astronomy points out. 

Comets have long been a source of lore and awe, their great tails arcing across the sky. Indeed, comets could have been the source of life on this planet, a recent study quoted by Space.com found.

To see Pan-STARRS, find an unobstructed horizon. The less ambient light, the better. Those out west—say, people observing from Yellowstone National Park, or any vast expanse of open space with a clear view of the horizon—stand the best chance of seeing it, just left of where the sun has gone down, visible for at least 30 minutes after sunset. That’s when it will glow the brightest, potentially reaching 1st magnitude, which is the brightness of the stars in the Big Dipper.

The key dates are the evening of the 9th, 10th and then again on the 12th and 13th of March, the latter two when Pan-STARRS will be easier to locate with the help of a crescent moon—first to the upper left of it, and on the following evening, to the lower right. It might even be visible for an entire hour after sunset, Astronomy reports, if the tail gets bright enough to see once the head sets. 

In other words, it could be quite a show, a scintillating preview to the big one later this year, comet ISON. But Pan-STARRS is singular in its own right, branded a “non-periodic comet” by the experts, according to Earthsky.org.

“It probably took millions of years to come from the great Oort comet cloud surrounding our solar system,” Earthsky.org reports. “It is, for sure, a once-in-a-lifetime comet.”

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