Comet Pan-STARRS in the night sky; how to watch the show

March 08, 2013 | 7:00 a.m.
This chart shows the position of comet Pan-STARRS in the western sky throughout the month of March. (Roy Gal and Alan Fitzsimmons)

This chart shows the position of comet Pan-STARRS in the western sky throughout March. (Roy Gal and Alan Fitzsimmons)

Want to see a comet move through the night sky? You’re in luck. Comet Pan-STARRS has just  become visible in the northern hemisphere.

And here’s the best part: You won’t even need a telescope to see the show. Scientists say the coma, or gaseous material surrounding the nucleus of the comet, should be as bright as the stars of the big dipper constellation and totally visible to the naked eye. But you will need a pair of regular birding binoculars in order to see the comet’s tail.

The comet will only be visible  low in the sky, so you’ll need to find a location that gives you a clear view of the western horizon. Even small hills and buildings will likely obstruct your view. Look in the direction of the sunset, just after the sun has gone down. The star map at the top of the page provides some guidance. Also note, by 7:30 p.m. local time, the comet will  have set. The best time to look is between 7 and 7:30 p.m.

Pan-STARRS  was discovered in 2011 by the  Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii, and has been visible in the southern hemisphere for about a month now. It likely originated in the ominous sounding Oort Cloud, a sphere of icy bodies that lies in the outer reaches of the solar system. Made of bits of rock held together by ice, these bodies are remnants from the creation of our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

Occasionally, a gravitational disturbance sends one of these bodies hurtling toward the sun. As the heat from the sun reaches the comet, the ice changes into a gas that surrounds the solid core of the comet. That gas reflects the light of the sun. The closer to the sun the comet gets, the more gas it will release and the brighter it becomes.

Comet Pan-STARRS’ closest approach to Earth was March 5, and it was still about 100 million miles from the planet, so no need to worry about an impact.

You should definitely start looking for Pan-STARRS now, (why not?) but astronomers say the best time to see the comet will be between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on March 12 and 13 when it will emerge in the western sunset sky, not far from the crescent moon. Talk about a magic half-hour.

— Deborah Netburn


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