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.
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!
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.
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.