Comet PANSTARRS reaches out to the Andromeda Galaxy tonight

The Andromeda Galaxy (top) and Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS appear to almost touch in this photo taken last night April 1 from north of Duluth, Minn. Details: 180mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 800 and 1-minute exposure. Notice the comet’s yellow color from sunlight reflected off dust. Photo: Bob King

Last night was perfect for PANSTARRS watching. Not a cloud, very steady air. From a dark rural site, the comet was still dimly visible with the naked eye glowing like a smeared 4th magnitude star. That’s about as faint as star as you can see from the outer suburbs of a moderate-sized city.

Despite fading, PANSTARRS has staying power. Through 10×50 binoculars it’s a cosmic dandelion seed with a bright head pointed horizon-ward and a 2-degree long (four full moon diameters) dust tail fanning to the north. The coolest thing was seeing the Andromeda Galaxy directly above the comet.

PANSTARRS and Andromeda near setting last night. The comet first becomes visible in binoculars about an hour after sunset – around 8:30 p.m. for Duluth, Minn. – and sets by 11 p.m. Photo: Bob King

Like hands across a divide, the two seemed to reach toward one another. The outermost edge of the galaxy’s disk nearly touched the end of the tail, and the two easily fit in the same field of view of the binoculars. To my eyes, PANSTARRS’ head outshone the galaxy’s star-packed core.

Since the comet’s on the move to the north, tonight and tomorrow night PANSTARRS’ tail will brush across the galaxy’s outer spiral arms – line of sight only. The two are separated by 2.5 million light years!

This map shows the sky facing northwest about an hour after sunset through April 9. Use the “W” of Cassiopeia to point you to Beta Andromedae and from there to PANSTARRS. The comet is 15 degrees high an hour after sunset or a fist and a half held at arm’s length against the sky. Created with Stellarium

How often does a bright comet make a pass by a bright galaxy? Not very. I hope you have the chance to see them together over the next few days. Use the map above to help you get there. ¬†Moonlight won’t be an issue for the next two weeks, so don’t worry if it’s cloudy at the moment. There will be opportunities unless you live in a most unforgiving climate.

The zodiacal light reaches up to the Pleiades cluster and bright Jupiter last night. The glow is mostly made of comet dust illuminated by the sun in the form of a vast cloud in the plane in the solar system. Photo: Bob King

While you’re out admiring PANSTARRS take a look around to the west and see if you can make out the big glowing wedge of zodiacal light extending from the horizon up toward Jupiter and beyond into Gemini. If you live in the northern hemisphere and have access to dark skies, April’s an ideal time for z-light watching. Start looking about 90 minutes after sunset.

14 thoughts on “Comet PANSTARRS reaches out to the Andromeda Galaxy tonight

  1. Hi Bob, I read your blog every day back home in Minnesota. I happen to be in Anchorage for the next couple of nights and was wondering where to look for the comet up here. It has been beautiful weather up here and I’d be more than happy to drive out of the city lights. Thanks for your help!

    • Hi Kari,
      You should be able to see the comet no problem from Anchorage. Just use the chart from today’s blog and tilt a bit to the left otherwise it’s similar to what we’d see in n. Minn. The chart shows the sky from Duluth.

    • Hi Bill,
      Thanks! Just got back from showing my community ed students the comet. It’s nice that it’s up for a long time now even though kind of low in the sky.

  2. My son and I went comet searching again last night and thanks to your map, our binoculars (which after dropping them last summer are really now monoculars!) and a spotting scope we finally found it! Clouds and life had kept us from finding it before, and it was very satisfying to finally find it and even better to see it with Andromeda. Thank you Bob!!!

  3. I hope that the comet does not fade too much when it comes into Cassiopeia. It should become close at around magnitude 5.5.

  4. Unfortunately I am at lat 18.06 long -63.06. Tonight was the first eve without clouds at the horizon in 2 weeks. By the time the solar glare abated andromeda had already set. I guess I will just have to wait until Panstarrs returns. Please keep posting the great fotos.

    Laproxdoc

  5. According to the BAA or British Astronomical Association, the comet is now viewable from 25-70 degrees North Latitude.

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