Don’t let Comets PANSTARRS and Lemmon out of your sight … yet

Comet L4 PANSTARRS on May 18. The anti-tail extends straight out from the comet’s coma to the left. Use the map below to find the comet. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

What the heck have comets L4 PANSTARRS and Lemmon been up to anyway?  Well, they’re still visible in 50mm binoculars and small telescopes. You can see them both sans moonlight in the morning sky after moonset. PANSTARRS first shows at nightfall not far from the North Star Polaris, one reason why it’s easy to find.

Map showing Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS’ location tonight through June 21. Positions are marked off every three nights. Stars are shown to about magnitude 8. Credit: created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Shining at around 8th magnitude it looks like a fuzzy spot in binoculars, a bigger fuzzy spot with a brighter head in a small scope and a twin-tailed wonder in large amateur telescopes. It sidles up the Little Dipper in the coming month passing near that constellations two brightest stars – Polaris and then Kochab (KO-kab). Moonlight will soon compromise evening viewing but morning skies are still dark just before dawn.

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon on May 17 showing its short, diffuse dust tail (left) and long gas tail. Credit: Damian Peach

Michael Jaeger’s amazing photo shows how drastically different PANSTARRS looks compared to a month ago. The principle dust tail (off to the right and fanning left) so bright in March and early April has shrunk and faded. Meanwhile, the anti-tail, formed by dust trailing in the comet’s orbit, stretches at least a full binocular field of view to the left. PANSTARRS never ceases to amaze.

This map shows the sky facing east around 3:30 a.m. or approximately 2 hours before sunrise near the start of morning twilight. Comet positions are shown every 3 days; stars plotted to about 7th magnitude. Lemmon travels from Pegasus into Andromeda over the next month. Credit: created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon has finally risen high enough before dawn to clear the horizon haze and treeline. At 7th magnitude, you can see in binoculars a more compact fuzzy spot than PANSTARRS; a telescope will show a faint, short tail to the southwest. Time exposure photos reveal a soft, rounded dust tail and long, skinny gas or ion tail.

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