We’ve waited 10 nights for clear skies in the Duluth, Minn. region and last night was the charm. Clouds cleared out in the nick of time leaving the western sky open for a freezing-room-only performance by the comet of the hour. The winds whirled snow across the road and shook the tripod but did nothing to dampen that internal flame that keeps all cold at bay.
I first saw PANSTARRS a little after 8 p.m. higher in a bluer sky than I expected. The comet looked white with a bright head and short tail easily seen in 10×50 binoculars. Minutes later I was surprised to see it with the naked eye. The comet looked like a dim star in bright twilight; I estimated its brightness at 1.0 magnitude.
As the comet sunk lower, the sky darkened and I could faintly see the tail using averted vision, a technique of looking at something out of the corner of your eye instead of directly at it. If you didn’t know where to look, you’d probably not even know PANSTARRS was there, but once you fixed your eyes on it, it was obvious.
Binoculars showed a graceful, curving tail 1.5 degrees long or equal to three full moons side-by-side. The head was very bright and pale yellow. At this point I was attempting to find a pullout on heavily snowed-in roads to park my car. I even tried a snowmobile trail until five guys road up, headlights ablaze, and indicated it was time to move on. With all the snow in our region, the toughest part about finding the comet was securing a comfy spot with a view down to the horizon.
I watched as PANSTARRS dropped lower and lower until atmospheric haze masked it from the naked eye. Binoculars continued to give great views until a distant cloud put the kibosh on the outing.
I loved the adventure of finding the comet and was struck by how pretty it appeared in simple binoculars. Many evenings of comet viewing remain. Those living in the northern U.S. will soon be able to spot PANSTARRS in both the evening and morning skies. More on that in due course. Have fun, enjoy the adventure.