A Map To Help You See Comet PANSTARRS All March Long

Use this map to find Comet PANSTARRS now through March 31. It depicts the sky facing west-northwest 30 minutes after sunset. The comet’s height remains fairly steady at about 10-14 degrees but it moves steadily northward (to the right). The yellow circles represent the sun’s position every 3 days. It also moves northward but more slowly. One fist equals about 10 degrees of sky. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Darn moon. Just can’t depend on it. Pity it’s moved far from Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS. Does that mean you shouldn’t bother with the comet anymore? No! With PANSTARRS higher up in the sky compared to a week ago, don’t throw in the towel yet.

The moon’s proximity made finding the comet relatively easy on March 12-13. Now you’ll need to rely on your compass points while using the map above to return to it. The map shows the comet’s position every 3 days now through March 31 from mid-northern latitudes, specially 42 degrees north (Chicago, Ill.)

If you live in the northern U.S., the comet will be in approximately the same positions but slightly higher in the sky; in the southern U.S. it will be a little lower. Bottom line: you can use it across much of the U.S., southern Canada and a fair share of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, southern Russia and China.

Notice the “15 degree” altitude line. If you set the bottom of your fist flat on the horizon, the 15 degree line is a fist and a half above that level.

The map compensates for the sun rising later each night as we approach the spring season and shows the comet’s height above the horizon when the sun is 7.5 degrees below the horizon. 7.5 degrees corresponds to about 30 minutes after sunset. Notice that the sun moves northward (to the right) just like the comet does over the next couple weeks but more slowly.

A compass has two sets of markings. One shows the basic directions N, S, etc. Those directions are subdivided into degrees of azimuth seen in the outer ring. Credit: Wikipedia

See those yellow numbers along the map’s horizon? Those are compass bearings called azimuths. If you have a compass, dig it out and give it a look. Every compass is marked in degrees of azimuth. 270 degrees is due west, 285 degrees is a fist and a half to the right of due west, 315 degrees is exactly halfway between due west and due north. North can be either 360 degrees or 0 degrees. Azimuths are simple way to subdivide directions to make them more precise.

Amateur astronomer Michael Jaeger combined 5 separate time exposures taken with a 180mm lens to create this fantastic view of PANSTARRS on March 15. This image shows more tail detail that I’ve seen in any other views (except from space) to date. Credit: Michael Jaeger

So the next time it’s clear, bring your binoculars and a compass (if needed) and find a location with a great view of the western sky preferably down to the horizon. Use the map along with the compass bearings to guide your eyes in the right direction. You can also use the sun’s position below the horizon to point you to the comet by angling up from the lingering glow at the sunset point.

As twilight deepens, the comet will drop slowly toward the horizon, remaining visible for a total time of approximately 40-50 minutes. Not a big window of opportunity but enough for a fine view. One final tip: before seeking PANSTARRS, don’t forget to focus your binoculars on “infinity”. Do this by focusing it on the moon, a cloud or bright star. There’s nothing more frustrating than sweeping for a fuzzy comet with an out-of-focus instrument.

Once again, good luck in your quest.

14 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    It seems that after Mar. 28, the comet will be better positioned in the morning sky. I figure that we have one good week left. If the weather does not cooperate by then it will be visible in binoculars only if an observer has a pretty good idea to know exactly where to look.

    1. astrobob

      You’re right about the morning sky especially for northern observers. I almost put that in the blog but it was long enough at that point 🙂 It will actually be nearly equally visible during evening and morning twilight by late this month.

  2. Larsa

    ^ woah, we can see it later this month in the morning too?? Where and what time could I see it in the morning? Id love to have two chances to finally see this comet!! 🙂

  3. lyn

    Thank you so much for such clear, easy to follow directions. I’ve been out looking at the western sky this last week, waiting for a clear sky. Finally, on St Paddy’s Eve, success!

    1. astrobob

      I’m delighted the directions were helpful. Congrats on the comet! We saw it here in Duluth as well last night – a beautiful view. More on that in another blog planned for today.

      1. lyn

        On Saturday night I was standing on the Bay-side of Park Point looking for the comet, which was easy to spot because of how well you explained where to look. I also set the alarm for 1:00a.m. auroras, but no luck. I should sign up for a phone call from SpaceWeather!

  4. caralex

    I just couldn’t find it over the past three days, despite crystal clear skies from Huntsville, Ont.! I’ll have to try with binoculars this week!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Carol,
      Yes, binoculars will be the only way to find it especially now. Its magnitude is down to about 2, bright enough to see in a transparent sky in mid-late twilight but not early.

  5. bob

    Congrats on another great chart! Haven’t got my own copy of Stellarium yet- its a 6hr download that hasn’t worked yet. To adjust for other latitudes besides 42deg, (ie, +-5deg) would the comet azimuth relative to sunset azimuth increase, decrease, or stay about the same?

    1. astrobob

      If it’s within 5 degrees, it’ll be close enough. 6 hour download??? That’s a long time for 61 megs. Ouch!

  6. Bob

    Stumbled across your site. What a great little treasure trove! 🙂 Nice to have another pair of eyes on the night sky. Your being in Minn. is an added bonus.

    Finally……..a cloudless sunset and I was able to catch a view of this traveler. Nice to have your sky map to supplement my software. Thanks for sharing!!


    Ps….is the Stellarium software a free download?

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