Pretty, pretty PANSTARRS and much, much more

Look at that pretty tail! Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS photographed in twilight Feb. 28, 2013 from near Perth, Australia. Details: Canon 7D, ISO 1600, 400mm lens at f/5.6. Click to see more comet photos. Credit: Roger Groom

Comet L4 PANSTARRS looks better and better with each passing night as these two photos attest. The latest birghtness estimate made a day ago puts the comet at magnitude 2.6 or only a little fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper. Yuri Beletsky, who shot the image below from the Atacama Desert in Chile, reports it was easily visible to the naked eye low above the western horizon at dusk. In a week, PANSTARRS will creep over the western horizon for northern hemisphere sky watchers and we’ll finally get to see it ourselves. Expect the comet to become visible around March 7-8 in the west about a half hour after sunset.

Two comets in the evening sky over the Atacama Desert. Comets F6 Lemmon and PANSTARRS both show lovely tails with PANSTARRS currently the brighter of the two. Click to enlarge. Credit: Yuri Beletsky

How bright will the comet glow? It’s hoped between magnitude 1 and 2 or about as bright as Deneb in the Northern Cross. If haven’t got a pair of binoculars yet, now’s the time to get down to the store and pick them up. Anything in a 8×40, 7×50 or 10×50 size will do the job. I know I’ve said it before but avoid 20x (20-power) binoculars in small sizes. The narrow field of view and high magnification will make PANSTARRS difficult to find but also and tough to hold steadily. Super high quality glass is not essential. Moderation in binoculars will bring great celestial joy.

I’ll have more detailed maps and of course tons of photos once the PANSTARRS limited-engagement, once-in-a-lifetime show begins in earnest.

The moon and Spica (to upper left of moon) this morning seen over a rooftop in Trieste, Italy. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Comets aren’t the only thing happening lately. Late last night some of you may have been lucky enough to see Spica and the moon paired up. Clouds dogged my attempts. Giorgio composed a beautiful picture of them together over a rooftop in Trieste earlier this morning.

Aurora activity ramped up last night for arctic sky watchers when a high-speed stream of solar wind rammed Earth’s magnetic field. For a brief time, minor auroras may have been visible across the far northern U.S. Activity is expected to continue tonight and then decline on March 2-3. You can always check the space weather forecast for the latest update.

NASA’s Van Allen probes (left) discovered a short-lived third Van Allen radiation belt last August only days after their launch. Credit: NASA

In a related story, NASA’s Van Allen probes discovered a third belt of radiation around Earth. We’ve known about the two Van Allen belts since 1958. They’re home to high-energy protons and electrons captured from the sun and cosmic rays from beyond the solar system and bottled up by Earth’s magnetic field. The inner belt is some 4,000 miles up; the outer belt extends from 13,000 to 37,000 miles high. Both belts swell and shrink in response to solar wind blasts and fluctuating amounts of cosmic rays.

The probes discovered a never-before-seen third belt just days after launch. Within a month it had disappeared. Exactly how, scientists are still trying to figure. If you’d like to read more about the discovery, click HERE.

9 thoughts on “Pretty, pretty PANSTARRS and much, much more

  1. Your Yuri Beletsky photo is linked to the wrong photo (when clicked on). That is an awesome photo! I wanted to see exposure data on that shot.

    Love your site, and your love of comets. Me too.

      • Astroimager Yuri Beletsky from Vitacura, Chile, used a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR equipped with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens to shoot a 30-second exposure that shows both Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4) and Comet Lemmon (C/2012 F6) in the same sky. He took the photograph just after sunset February 28 from the Atacama Desert. He noted that Comet PANSTARRS (lower right) was clearly visible to the unaided eye.

    • Aloha Astro Bob, Edward M. Boll and Everyone!

      Although I don’t know where you live Mr. Boll, Panstaars brightness seems to be good enough to be seen with the UNAIDED eye in Australia (or the southern hemisphere in general)!! There is an excellent photo of it over that wonderful continent (city of Melbourne) taken on March 2nd. In the article accompanying it “they” say it is “approaching” brightness of Mag. 2, as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper. Care to see the photo? Go here: http://spaceweather.com/

      I practically have an “out-of-body-experience” when I go to Hanalei Bay, on the north shore of Kauai (where I live) at night and look up…with almost NO artificial lights to interfere with viewing, the night sky is breathtaking. Then, add one (or more) of those mysteries of the Universe like comet Panstaar and it makes the night sky almost surrealistic.

      Then as I’ve said before when gazing at the wonders of our celestial surroundings, that familiar feeling comes back to me of feeling so very, very tiny. I’ve found most folks can’t grasp the “concept”/reality of just how small we actually are by comparison in this vast universe, no matter what metaphor(s) I use.
      Aloha For Now!

  2. hello Wayne in Australia (!?)
    I totally understand the feeling that you discribe, about us humans, being soooooo small in this great and glorious universe. we only have to look up at the stars to get our feet back on the ground … some people should do this more often :-)
    I envie you for that ‘breathtaking’ night sky !
    friendly greetings from Belgium

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