Comet PANSTARRS finally sails into northern skies

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS photographed through a small 4-inch telescope last night March 9 from Sparks, Nevada by amateur astronomer Jay Lawson. Lawson described the comet as difficult to see until near setting, when he finally found it in 7×35 binoculars. Credit: Jay Lawson

We’ve been dogged by clouds, so no Comet L4 PANSTARRS update from my backyard. Others across the U.S. have had better luck, spotting it just a few degrees above the western horizon a half hour after sunset. Despite its current magnitude of around 0 (bright as Vega in the Summer Triangle) the thick, hazy air near the horizon combined with the bright twilight glow have made it difficult to see with the naked eye. That should change in the coming nights as the comet inches upward into a darker sky.

Airplane contrails seen from afar can be easily confused with a comet like PANSTARRS low in the twilight sky. They form when water vapor from burning engine fuel condenses in the cold air at high altitudes.  Binoculars will also often show the plane at the head of the trail. Photo: Bob King

Most observers say PANSTARRS is easy to see in binoculars with a very pretty tail. While you’re out hunting, don’t be fooled by airplane contrails. Sherrie of Ohio shared a photo of a very comet-like object with a bright head and short tail she saw low in the western sky on Friday night the 9th. After looking at several of her photos it became clear she had seen a “tail” of water vapor from a distant jet. In one of the photos, the sun briefly reflected off the plane creating a bright comet “head”. Very convincing.

An airplane contrail masquerading as a comet photographed Friday after sunset from northwestern Ohio. In the photo at left, sunlight briefly glints off the airplane at the head of the trail. At right, the glint is gone. The tilt of the trail also doesn’t match PANSTARRS’ tail angle. Credit: Sherrie Duris

You can tell the difference between a distant contrail and the comet after a few minutes. The contrail will change in length, brightness and overall appearance (or even disappear altogether) while PANSTARRS will look the same from the time you first spot it until setting. That goes for the angle of the tail, too. The comet’s tail is tipped up about 30-40 degrees to the upper right of horizontal. Contrails can appear at a variety of angles.


Video of Comet PANSTARRS setting over the Sierra Nevada Mts. from Sparks, Nevada by Jay Lawson

Today March 10, PANSTARRS reaches perihelion, when it will be closest to the sun at a distance of 28 million miles. This is when the comet feels the sun’s heat most intensely and waxes brightest. Dust-imbedded ices vaporized by sunlight create the comet’s fuzzy head and long tail. Once it leaves the sun’s vicinity, PANSTARRS will slowly fade but appear farther from the sun in a darker sky. With an orbital period of approximately 106,000 years, this will be the first and last chance any of us will behold this messenger from deep space.

Comet PANSTARRS (top center) from Uttarakhand, India at latitude 30 degrees north (same as New Orleans) on March 9. It was not visible with the naked eye but apparent in binoculars . Ajay Talwar joined members of the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi to view the comet. Credit and copyright: Ajay Talwar

I’m optimistic the best views for the northern hemisphere are yet to come. Use these maps to help you find it. To see more PANSTARRS photos taken from the U.S. and other locales, click HERE.

18 thoughts on “Comet PANSTARRS finally sails into northern skies

  1. Overcast days also here. Today we had an isolated clear sky moment, with great seeing and transparency, but a cloud bank at low altitude – not uncommon for us on sea.
    Let’s hope for good weather on 12th when the comet gets in conjunction with Moon and, for a binocular/lens which can get it, Uranus (these days aligned to similar magnitude star 44 Psc, as it was in September).
    Clear skies!

  2. I guess that I will have to see it to make my own magnitude estimation. Today, some one had the magnitude at 1.4 while another one had it at -1.

  3. Good news, Comet Bressi has done the unexpected and survived. The bad news is that it is much fainter than expected, probably around magnitude 14 now and fading.

    • Mike,
      As long as you have very clear skies near the western horizon you can see it right now. Go out in the next few nights and look a little less than one fist held at arm’s length a little to the left of the bright glow of sunset on the western horizon. You may not see the comet right away with the naked eye, so I’ve been recommending you use binoculars. Sweep the area starting about 25 minutes after sunset. It will appear as a fuzzy star. When the sky darkens further, you’ll notice a short tail. Good luck! Tomorrow night it will be much easier to see positioned a short distance to the left of the thin crescent moon.

      • Sat & Sun nights the sky was clear with the exception of layer of clouds (5 degrees) on the horizon. Even with Binoculars I was unable to spot it. I will keep trying and wont give up. I remember how spectacular Comet Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp were and now extend with children this time > The Year of the Comet > Mike K

  4. I didnt see anything around 10 degrees the west horizon… I was high up up on a hill to where I could see the other half of the town next to mine, thats a wide view! This is my second day trying to see it. I see videos of this comet and a lot of photographs for a better understanding of where to look, so I am confused as to why I started looking at 7:32pm-8:20pm my time and I havnt seen any thing similar to a smudge or v shape, help please? What am I doing wrong lol.

    • Larsa,
      Your time is right, direction too. Are you using binoculars? Some folks are having a hard time seeing the comet with the naked eye because of haze at low altitude. If your sky is hazy or light-polluted it would be very difficult to see with the naked eye, but should be visible in binoculars.

  5. Thank you Bob, never really thought about haze! I was facing Frisco, TX a fairly big city outside the countryside. We have binoculars and a large scope! This comet is difficult to see but I def wont give up until its completely gone!!! Is it super close just to the actual horizon line just left of the sun? Im thinking maybe I was looking too high or im not high enough. Not giving up!!!!!

    • Larsa,
      For your latitude (33 degrees north), PANSTARRS will slowly march to the right (north) getting neither higher nor lower through early April. When it first becomes visible (about 30 minutes after sunset). I’ll make new maps soon.

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