Comet PANSTARRS pulls double-shift, gets no rest

Comet PANSTARRS flaunts a bright head and broad dust tail last night about 9:30 p.m. in the northwestern sky. Details: 200mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 800 and 32-second exposure on a tracking platform. Photo: Bob King

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.

Moonrise last night. The bright star above the moon is Spica in Virgo. With the moon now coming up well after dark, the next two weeks will be the best last time to see Comet PANSTARRS in binoculars. Photo: Bob King

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.

Comet PANSTARRS hangs out in Andromeda the next week or so and passes near the Andromeda Galaxy around April 3. This map shows the sky about an hour after sundown facing northwest. Use the W of Cassiopeia to point you to Beta Andromeda. From there, drop to Delta and then to the comet. Maps created with Stellarium

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.

If you live in the northern half of the U.S. or Canada , you can now look for PANSTARRS low in the northeastern sky at the start of dawn. Once again, you can use the familar W of Cassiopeia to help get you there.  This map shows the 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.

8 thoughts on “Comet PANSTARRS pulls double-shift, gets no rest

  1. My only sighting of Halley was on Mar. 31, 1986. I hope that I can see Panstaars on Mar. 31, 2013. It should be an easier target, a little brighter and certainly higher in altitude.

    • Edward,
      I hope you have clear skies then to make the connection. A friend and I flew to Arequipa, Peru back in ’86 for a good view of Halley. We watched it all night long from a spot in the Atacama Desert. The only down side was that the geometry at the time was such that the tail was hidden from view so Halley looked like a big, bright fuzzball. Great trip and memories. If I recall the best time for comet viewing was in March before dawn when the comet showed a nice tail.

  2. I see rthat according to observations, Panstaars is fainter than magnitude 4 with still a nice faint tail. It seems to be fading fast.

    • Maria,
      Yes, you can see the comet from Delhi but you’ll need a really open view to the northwest during evening and to the northeast during morning twilight. The evening view is not so good because of a bright sky. The morning is better – the comet is very low in Andromeda near the Andromeda Galaxy about an hour to an hour and a half before sunrise low in the northeastern sky.

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