Comet PANSTARRS is finally visible again in a dark, moonless sky. It’s not easy to see with the naked eye, but still a cool sight in binoculars. I took a look last night from yet another roadside pullout where cars whizzed by like demonic fireballs every few minutes. What I wouldn’t give for a non-trafficked location with an clear view to the northwest. My wife told I should start knocking on doors and asking strangers if they wouldn’t mind me using their driveways.
The comet looked great in 10×50 binoculars with a broad tail about 2.5 degrees (five full moon diameters) long streaming back from a small, bright head. The photo captures the binocular appearance well. Since it first popped into the sky three weeks ago, PANSTARRS has faded from 0 magnitude (bright as Vega) to about 3.5, more than a level fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper.
But what it’s lost in brilliance, it’s made up for in altitude. Binoculars will show it about an hour after sunset some 15 degrees high (a fist and a half held at arm’s length) in the northwestern sky. I kept it in view last night from 8:30 to 9:45 p.m. In twilight, only the head and a short bit of tail are visible, but as darkness descends and before the comet drops into the hazy horizon soup, you’ve got an hour of good viewing time. This is especially true for observers in the northern U.S. If you live “down south” your time is less.
PANSTARRS is moving northward across the constellation Andromeda with each passing night. Beginning this week, it’s making dual appearances – you can check it out during both evening AND morning twilight. If you’re an early bird, look low in the northeastern sky about 75 minutes before sunrise.
By mid-April, our fuzzy visitor will have scooted far enough into the northern sky to remain visible all night long. Much like the Big and Little Dippers seen from the northern U.S. and Canada, it will circle around the pole star and never set. Astronomers use the term “circumpolar” for stars and other deep sky that cycle about the North Star without dropping below the horizon.
Around April 3 the comet will pass near the Andromeda Galaxy, the biggest galaxy closest to our own Milky Way. Like the comet, Andromeda is easily visible in binoculars and looks like a cigar-shaped patch of glowing fuzz with a brighter center. The pairing of comet and galaxy should make for a very interesting sight as well as offer an excellent photo opportunity for enterprising astrophotographers.
By the way, I’m now writing occasional articles for Universe Today. A recent one on this topic appeared yesterday if you’d like to check it out for a few more details and many additional photos.