Tough Time Finding Comet PANSTARRS? Crescent Moon To The Rescue!

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS over the lights of San Diego, Calif. on March 10, 2013. Kevin caught the comet in an open spot between bands of haze. Credit: Kevin Baird

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.

The 1-day-old moon lines up with PANSTARRS in the western sky tonight March 12.. This map shows the sky from mid-northern latitudes about 25 minutes past sunset when the comet and moon will both be 8 degrees high slightly south of due west. Maps created with Stellarium. See end of blog to learn how to get this free program and make your own comet map.

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.

Tomorrow night March 13 the moon will be higher and easier to see and still be useful to locating the comet. This map shows the sky about 25 minutes after sunset looking west. The moon will be 20 degrees high, the comet 10 degrees.

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.

A pair of binoculars along with the moon should help you find Comet PANSTARRS tonight. Credit: Kevin Baird

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.

Comet PANSTARRS caught in a clear gap between clouds yesterday March 11 from Austria. Credit: Michael Jaeger

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:
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.

31 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I have been hoping that the clouds move out. They are moving fast but the sky is at least 80 percent overcast. I can see just a reddish glow of sunset.

  2. Larsa

    OMG thank you, Bob!!!!! This update is a godsend! We should definetely see this comet now!! I hope everyone who wants to see it can spot it easily now, its truely an amazing coincidence the moon will be rising up next to it, almost like its helping us!! Nature is so amazing…

  3. Larry Regynski

    Thanks, Bob! I was having a heck of time last night to no avail. Tonight: Success! PANSTARRS is a lot dimmer than I hoped, but you can still see the tail with binoculars (10x55mm). Now that I have a better idea where in the sky it was tonight, I’ll have a better time tomorrow. I was hoping to add PANSTARRS to my comet tally, and now I can. Hope you see it soon, Bob!

  4. We saw it tonight in Denver with binoculars, about 7:30. Several walls of clouds moving through but breaking briefly during that time just enough to watch for about 15 minutes. The crescent moon was such a help in locating it – without it never would have found it. What a treat.

  5. Michael Gurganus

    Hello Bob,
    Just thought I’d drop a note and say I did get some photos last night – there was a lot of lower horizon haze that cleared up so that I could get a window of 12 minutes. Actually pulled off the dark road (NC Hwy 64 near Pittsboro NC) and was treated to about 18 photos and had 3 or 4 really good ones.

    Thanks for keeping the updated info here. I’ll still track this comet but looking forward to ISON this winter. Hope you get a chance to see it tonight – I’ll be back out again.

    1. astrobob

      You’re welcome. Glad you spotted it and took photos. Looks like it’ll finally be clear at my place tonight.

  6. Lise

    Thank you for this post! Your Stellarium map was immensely helpful– that and knowing ahead of time that it was very dim and hard to see. We went out after work tonight (the 13th) on the spur of the moment with a camera and tripod but no binocs, and if I hadn’t read your post I would have given up trying to find it. As it was, we finally saw it with the naked eye, and captured a much better view in the camera with a 2 second exposure just before trees hid it from view.

    1. astrobob

      I’m glad the map helped – feedback on the maps is important to know how good a tool they are (or aren’t). Thanks for writing and I”m glad you got to see the comet.

  7. Larsa

    Hello Bob!! We really tried today in the lonestar state. We traveled way out north away from cities near Lake Texoma but haze was definetly an issue. Today , we were using 12×25 Bussell binoculars. The horizon is just so grey, even out in the country. Right now, I can only see a few stars on the west horizon but its 8:30pm here and im sure the comet is out of my view. The moon looked fabulous though!! Im thankful the moon helped as mich as it did yesterday and today even if I didnt see it. Im sure we were looking right at it but it was hiding behind the haze. Im at least happy so many people got to see it and took pictures!!

  8. Larsa

    *I wanted to add that we started at sunset, around 7:32pm here. I also wanted to ask viewers: has anyone else in DFW had difficulty finding it or has successfully found the comet yet?

  9. Doug

    Thanks for the charts. I went out tonight (3/13/13) and was able to find it here in Naperville, Illinois. There was quite a bit of jet contrails in the west, but otherwise no clouds. It was barely naked eye visible, and through binoculars was pretty cool. I was able to get a couple decent shots of it with a DSLR and 300mm lens at 30 second exposure. Thanks again…

        1. astrobob

          Aravind and Alsunni,
          For latitude 15 degrees north (Bangalore) the comet will be 6.5 degrees high and slightly to the north (right) of due west March 15 about 30 minutes after sunset. This is about the time you might first see it. Now through March 20, the comet will continue slowly moving to the north and drop in altitude to 4.5 degrees 30 minutes after sunset. In other words, it’s not easy to see now and will become harder in the days ahead. Scan the western horizon with binoculars each night if you hope to catch the comet. I doubt it will be visible with the naked eye from your latitude.

  10. Julie

    Hi Bob! The Las Vegas sunset tonite was like a fire in the sky!! Beautiful! Too many lights to spot the comet, tho…Tomorrow I’ll try a mountain top. Maybe out near Redrock. Back in the mid 90’s, I enjoyed a long,incredible view of the Space Stations docked together from Bullhead City, AZ. Man made, and so big, you couldn’t miss it if you tried! I hope to see the God made comet tomorrow!

    1. astrobob

      An addendum to my note. That bit of tail in your photo is indeed pointing in the RIGHT direction. I had it wrong the first time.

  11. We saw the comet last eve, March 13 from north of San Diego. There was coastal fog which may have added to the horizon haze, although we are twenty plus miles inland. Also, the bright dusk red orange color may have made it difficult to see. So on our first try, twenty to twentyfive minutes after sunset, no luck. Then went back out about fifty to fifty minutes after sunset when it was mostly dark. Sure enough, I was able to spot it, just like your picture portrayed – straight down from the moon at a five o’clock setting as it were. It was fuzzy and dim dim of course, but we could see the ball and tail above. A great treat as it won’t be back for 110K years. We used a Nikon 20x spotting scope and Eagle Optics Ranger 8×42 binoculars. Naked eye would not have been sufficient. Thanks for the info.

    1. astrobob

      Hey Vince,
      Great report on the comet. I think without the haze (and without the high clouds at my place) we both would have seen this one naked eye.

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