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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Comet is coming!

Could be the best since 1997
By Will Collette

PANSTARRS while still only visible in the Southern Hemisphere - from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day
If you’ve never seen a major comet, you may be in for a treat over the next couple of weeks. In 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp was easily visible across North America and it was magnificent! I happened to be out in rural western Pennsylvania on the peak viewing night when the night was clear, crisp and cold. Hale-Bopp was clearly visible – easily the brightest object in the sky other than the moon. 

Starting on March 8th, and for days afterwards, Comet PANSTARRS will become visible in the northern hemisphere, weather permitting. On the 8th, it will be just barely over the horizon, but by March 12-13, it will be higher and also close to the sliver-thin crescent moon. It may remain visible to the naked eye until April 4. Hopefully, we’ll get a few of those classic Charlestown dark sky night viewing opportunities, if only the storms would stop. 

Astronomers find it’s hard to predict a comet’s brightness, especially a first-time comet like PANSTARRS. This comet came from parts unknown well past the orbit of Pluto. At first, astronomers thought hopefully that PANSTARRS would be off-the-charts bright, but as it came closer to the sun, it off-gassed material from its surface, and now the forecast for brightness has been somewhat lessened. 

But it’s still supposed to be great. It has already put on a magnificent show for the Southern Hemisphere (click here for an example) and may provide us with a rare and awesome spectacle. 

Most of the viewing tips I have read suggest finding the comet with binoculars first by using the viewing maps that are now being widely published (example on this page). That should give you a nice view of its tail. Then you can enjoy the view with your naked eyes. 

If PANSTARRS doesn’t knock your socks off, we have another comet coming later this year that could turn out to be one thousand times brighter! That’s Comet ISON which is currently on course to pass very near the Sun in late November. If it survives that close passage without disintegrating, it could turn out to be far brighter than PANSTARRS, visible in our skies through December. Again, astronomers like to hedge their bets when predicting comet behavior.