Comet PANSTARRS is proving harder to see with the naked eye than expected. Many sky watchers have either been thwarted by clouds or frustrated by haze. Even hard-core comet followers have had difficulty, so you’re not alone. While most experienced observers estimate its brightness at about 1st magnitude – equal to that of the brighter stars – haze, clouds and bright twilight have made finding it with the naked eye tricky to impossible to see.
OK, now for the good news. We’re all going to get some help tonight and tomorrow night from the crescent moon. Like a celestial fishing guide, the moon will take you to the right spot where all you need do is drop your line in the water and wait for a bite. We’re hoping your patience nets you a comet this time around.
Tonight (March 12) look about 4 degrees to the left of the moon with binoculars beginning about 25 minutes after sunset. Assuming the sky is clear, you should see a fuzzy pinkish star. Trouble focusing? Just point the binoculars at the moon and focus sharply. You can also use clouds for focusing. Either way, once they’re sharp, the comet will be too.
As the sky darkens, the “star” will sprout a short tail. That’s it – Comet PANSTARRS. The color by the way is not intrinsic to the comet but caused looking through so much thick atmosphere. It’s the same reason the sun and moon glow red when near the horizon; blues and greens are scattered by dense and dusty air, leaving only oranges and reds. The comet-moon combo should be visible for about a half hour until setting.
Tomorrow March 13 the moon will be further up and easier to see but still near enough the comet to once again serve as an able guide.
Again, I can’t emphasize enough how useful binoculars are in extending the reach of your vision. For many, they’re absolutely necessary to get a fix on the object in the first place. Once found with binoculars, PANSTARRS with be easier to pin down with the naked eye because you’ll know exactly where to look. 7×35, 7×50, 10×50 or 8×40’s combine ease of use with good light-gathering capability and are widely available.
Once found with binoculars, you’ll find it easier to pick out PANSTARRS with the naked eye because you know exactly where to look. 7×35, 7×50, 10×50 or 8×40’s combine ease of use with good light-gathering capability and are widely available.
I wish I could share my own impressions of PANSTARRS, but it’s been completely overcast here for the past five nights and the next few don’t look any better. Needless to say, I’m chomping at the bit.
By the way, I dug around and discovered how to show the comet’s exact location in the free sky charting software program Stellarium, which is what I used to make the charts in today’s blog.
First, download either the Mac or PC version HERE. Then follow these instructions, provided by Bogdan Marinov with addition tweaks by yours truly. I apologize for the length; readers not interested in plotting the comet’s location can ignore this next section.
Finding a comet with Stellarium
1. Enable the Solar System editor plug-in by clicking on the Configuration window (it will appear as a little box with a wrench icon if you move your pointer to the lower left of the screen.) It will also pop up if you hit “F2” on your keyboard.
2. Open the Configruation window and go to “Plugins”
3. Select “Solar System Editor” in the left column (the plug-in’s description should appear)
4. If the “load at startup” box is not checked, check it and restart Stellarium.
3. Go to the same plug-in screen, select the same plug-in and click on the “configure” button.
4. In the window that opens, go to the “Solar System” tab, then click on the “Import elements in MPC format window”.
5. In the window that opens, select “Comets”, then “Download a list of objects from the Internet”.
6. If you are using 0.10.6, copy this URL to the “URL” box: http://www.minorplanetcenter.net/iau/Ephemerides/Comets/Soft00Cmt.txt
7. If you are using 0.11.0 or higher, just select “MPC’s list of observable comets” from the bookmarks list.
8. Click the “Get orbital elements” button and wait for the file to be downloaded.
9. After it has finished downloading, it should display a list of comets. Find the comet you want to add in the list, check the checkbox in front of it and click the “Add objects” button. In this case, look for C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS).
10. After the comet has been added, you can find it in the “Search” window: start typing the name of the comet for it to appear in the list of suggestions. The name should be written in the same way as it was displayed in the list as C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)
11. Now put in the time and place you want to see the comet and select a horizon with no obstructions. The “Ocean” or “Guereins” views are best. You’ll find them under “Sky and Viewing Options window/Landscapes”.
It may not show up at first because of the bright twilight sky. To “force” it to appear, go to the “Sky and Viewing Options” box by moving your pointer to the lower left of the screen or hit “F4”. In the “Light Pollution” box, click down to “1”, the least amount of light pollution. The comet should now show up as a point of light just like a star. If not, advance the time a few minutes until the sky gets dark enough for PANSTARRS to appear.