Don’t give up on Comet PANSTARRS yet

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS last night March 22, 2013 at 8:40 p.m. low in the northwestern sky. Although faint, it was still seen with the naked eye and remains a pretty sight in binoculars. Details: 200mm at f/2.8, ISO 400 and 15 sec. exposure on a tracking mount. Photo: Bob King

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.

The highlight of seeing the comet through the telescope was its brilliant, pea-like false nucleus glowing yellow from sunlit dust. The real comet nucleus – the actual comet – lies within the false nucleus and shrouded by dust. Drawing: Bob King

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.

Use this map to find Comet PANSTARRS now through March 29. The map shows the sky facing northwest about 40 minutes after sunset when the comet will be a little more than one “fist” high. Created with Stellarium

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.

The comet joins an old white pine tree in this scene from March 19. Details: 300mm lens at f/2.8. ISO 800 and 5-second exposure. Photo: Bob King

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.

14 thoughts on “Don’t give up on Comet PANSTARRS yet

  1. No, haven’t seen it. Every night clouds over the Rockies. Every night. I’m sure I’ve been close on one or two nights, but…sigh…

    • I’m in Nova Scotia, Canada and have been trying with no luck since the beginning of this month. Last night and tonight, March 29th, has seen perfect conditions so I can’t imagine why it’s so difficult. Am about to leave for my favorite location and give it another shot. Even if I succeed, it won’t come close to my experience in summer 1997 of seeing Hale-Bopp brilliant and beautiful night after night, during which I got a few great photos. Pannstars isn’t even in the same ballpark compared to Bopp!!

      • Hi Gordon,
        Hale-Bopp was SO much brighter and easier to see than PANSTARRS. Higher up, too. Please use the detailed map on my current blog to help you find it. Just go to astrobob.areavoices.com
        It will be right on top. Scroll down a bit for the map. Good luck!

  2. I estimated Panstaars at 3.3 magnitude Thursday evening. Other’s estimates were 2.7 and 3.1. Mine was probably a little lower because I did not figure a little interference from moonlight.

  3. Thanks for the new map. I’ve been fortunate to observe and photograph it on 9 nights since 3/9 here in central NM. I’ve been using landmarks to find it each night, but a current 3 night gap is in the works. This will help.

    • Hi Tim,
      That’s a great run! We’re also cloudy now for a night or two. When the comet first appeared there were simply no stars to use as guides. Glad to see that’s finally changing!

  4. Sunday March 24 2013. After 101 cloudy evening/nights in a row with cloudy conditions (Since Dec 14th) over Penticton, BC, SUCCESS ! I finally observed comet PANSTARRS (C/2012 L4) with the help of my 20X80 binocs. Difficult to estimate the magnitude with the moonlight but it appeared a little bit fainter than Alpha And. Couldn’t manage to snap a pic as my old blackberry didn’t appreciate the low lighting conditions. Thank You for the chart as it definitely helped a lot. Now I’m going to push my luck and try to observe it before sunrise and see the ISS pass overhead at the same time.
    Now I think it will take more than my word to prove to my acquaintances that I’m not crazy but that’s another story :o

  5. I am located in the southeast,,near Augusta Ga,,,only seen it once on March 12 for 15min….I would like to get a few pictures for my granddaughter…Would you think I could around the middle of April??????????Have 8in telescope with several still and video cameras….Thanks CJW

  6. Very happy to have spotted it from Queens County New York. The full moon was out and the Manhattan sky glow was strong but nonetheless was successful. Used 20×80 binoculars to snag it. It was dim and not visible with the unaided eye. Thank you for your informative story regarding this fascinating comet!

  7. Thanks for the encouragement and with good directions from your site and spaceweather.com, I finally saw the comet Wednesday evening in my IS 8×25 binoculars! After seeing how my photos came out, I’m really impressed with your ‘comet and tree’ photo. http://bkellysky.wordpress.com/
    Of course, one of our better photographers posted a photo on our westchester astronomers facebook page of himself, M32 and the comet.

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