We’ve had a good week for Comet PANSTARRS watching in my region. I hope you’ve also had an opportunity to go out for a look. Three clear nights with fine binocular views presented themselves.
The first night the wind blew at 30 mph and I could barely keep the telescope from spinning around; the second was absolutely calm but I never got the focus right on my camera and the third – last night – was sweetest. I set up a camera under the bright gibbous moon on a frozen bog used as a snowmobile trail. Bright moonlight lit the snow and air in such a cheery way, I felt I didn’t have a care in the world.
Even in moonlight the comet was faintly visible with the naked eye once you knew exactly where to look. I could distinguish its small, brighter head glowing around 3rd magnitude (one level fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper) and a faint streak of a tail. Through 10×50 binoculars the tail pointed straight up and stretched some 2 degrees (four full widths). I kept the comet in view from 8:10 to about 9 p.m.
You can use this map to help you find PANSTARRS. It shows the sky for mid-northern latitudes about 40 minutes after sunset. For my town, that’s around 8:10 p.m. Because the comet has finally risen high enough in the west to appear in a darker sky and headed toward a group of brighter stars, we can use some of those stars to help us find it.
You can start as far up as Jupiter if you like and draw a line to the north (right) to Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus the Hero. From Mirfak, drop down to Gamma Andromedae and then to Beta and almost to Alpha. That puts you right next to the comet. Or you can shoot a line from the bottom of the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia straight to Beta and from there to PANSTARRS.
Late next week, when the moon is out of the sky, we’ll finally see the comet at least briefly in real darkness. I’ll prepare two maps – one for evening and another for morning – that you can use to continue tracking it. Yes, PANSTARRS will be visible at both dusk and dawn especially for sky watchers in the northern states, Canada and central Europe. At the start of April, watch for it to pass just under the Andromeda Galaxy, a chance juxtaposition with excellent visual and photo potential.
While PANSTARRS never became a great naked eye comet for northern hemisphere observers, it could rightly be called a great binocular comet. Bright twilight and low altitude have proved major obstacles for would-be seekers.
Were it only well-placed in a dark, nighttime sky, many more people would find it with ease.
I encourage you to stick with our space visitor and give it another try. Don’t expect a naked eye feast but do anticipate an inspiring sight in telescopes and binoculars for the next few weeks.