…to see comet PanSTARRS. Just in case you haven’t heard, there’s a comet visible in the skys of the northern hemisphere these days. PanSTARRS put on a pretty good show in the southern Hemisphere for the past month or so. Now it’s made its made its swing around the sun and it’s our turn. PanSTARRS has been a bit difficult to see the last couple of days because of its proximity to the sun but should become more impressive over the next few days as it moves away from the sun. However, it won’t last long since it also will begin to dim as it moves away from the sun.
How about a little PanSTARRS trivia. This comet’s full name is C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). It was discovered June 6, 2011 by astronomers using the Pan-STARRS telescope located near the summit of Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii. Unlike Halley’s Comet which swings through our solar system every 75-76 years or so, PanSTARRS may well be a one-timer since astronomers’ calculations put its orbital period at about 106,000 years.
So…have I got your interest? Want to see a comet?
Since PanSTARRS isn’t a particularly bright comet, you might want to grab a pair of binoculars before heading outside. Sure, you can use a telescope but an ordinary binoculars is perfectly fine for comet watching. Also, if you have one, a compass will be handy too. Again, nothing fancy needed, one of the little zipper-pull compasses or even a toy compass would be fine. OK, you have your binoculars and maybe a compass, now you need a good place for observing. Look for a place that’s away from a lot of light and that also has a low horizon…meaning it isn’t ringed with tall trees or buildings. School parking lots and some church parking lots can be great places to observe, as are pastures or planted fields. Parking lots around shopping centers often have low horizons but the presence of a lot of street lights will make your chances of seeing this comet iffy at best.
Since PanSTARRS is low on the horizon, your best opportunity to see it will begin 30 to 45 minutes after sunset and will last until the comet itself slips below the horizon. Once you’ve found a good spot for observing, try to arrive a little early to give your eyes time to adjust to the increasing darkness. Also, it’s a good idea to take your binoculars out of the car and let them acclimate to the ambient temperature so the lenses aren’t foggy.
OK, the sun has set and it’s getting darker. Time to find a comet, right? First, find west. You can either pull out your handy dandy compass and orient yourself or just look for the moon. It’s a waxing crescent right now so look for just a small sliver. Once you find the moon you’re in the ballpark. Time to get down to the nitty gritty. The following finder chart from Sky & Telescope Magazine should help…
Now before you take off to go look for the comet, here’s something you need to keep in mind. This chart is based on the observer being at about 45 degrees north latitude. I live at about 33.4 degrees north latitude so my view was a bit different. Moral of the story…you’ll have to adjust a bit for your latitude. BTW, as you have probably guessed, there are astronomy apps available for your smart phones and pads that can have you looking in the right place in no time.
If you’re somewhere near the same latitude as Atlanta, Georgia (roughly N33.8), the comet should be a little to the right of the moon and down just above the horizon. It should be visible to the naked eye in darker locations but you’ll probably have to pull out those binoculars in areas with more light. Once you’re looking in the right spot you should see the comet which looks like a fuzzy star with a tail thats pointing upward and away from the sun. With a bit of luck, PanSTARRS will be visible for the next couple of weeks.
Here are a couple of recent photos of PanSTARRS. First, a shot from my friend Jimmy Westlake, astronomy professor at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, Colorado…
Next, a shot taken by Steve Morgan, instructor of astronomy at Young Harris College (My Alma Mater, GO MOUNTAIN LIONS!) in Young Harris, Georgia.
If for some reason you’re not able to see PanSTARRS don’t dispair…comets Lemmon and ISON will make appearances later this year.