For those in search of comet PANSTARRS, look to the west after sunset in early and mid-March. This graphic shows the comet’s expected positions in the sky. Check out the videos… Image © NASA
Comets visible to the naked eye are a rare delicacy in the celestial smorgasbord of objects in the nighttime sky. Scientists estimate that the opportunity to see one of these icy dirtballs advertising their cosmic presence so brilliantly they can be seen without the aid of a telescope or binoculars happens only once every five to 10 years. That said, there may be two naked-eye comets available for your viewing pleasure this year.
“You might have heard of a comet ISON, which may become a spectacular naked-eye comet later this fall,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NASA’s NEOWISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and self-described cosmic icy dirtball fan. “But if you have the right conditions you don’t have to wait for ISON. Within a few days, comet PANSTARRS will be making its appearance in the skies of the Northern Hemisphere just after twilight.”
Discovered in June 2011, comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) bears the name of the telescopic survey that discovered it — the less than mellifluous sounding “Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System” which sits atop the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii.
Since its discovery a year-and-a-half ago, observing comet PANSTARRS has been the exclusive dominion of comet aficionados in the Southern Hemisphere, but that is about to change. As the comet continues its well-understood and safe passage through the inner-solar system, its celestial splendor will be lost to those in the Southern Hemisphere, but found by those up north.
“There is a catch to viewing comet PANSTARRS,” said Mainzer. “This one is not that bright and is going to be low on the western horizon, so you’ll need a relatively unobstructed view to the southwest at twilight and, of course, some good comet-watching weather.”
Comet PANSTARRS and the Paranal Observatory. Image © G. Brammer/ESO
On the evening of March 11, 2013, Comet PanSTARRS was captured in a time lapse sequence as it set over the Dos Cabezas Mountains.