This article is the part of a series on comets contributed by Tammy Plotner. Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She was the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter’s Gold Status.
Comet PANSTARRS won’t pass by Earth until this spring, but it’s already showing some unusual properties. Researchers have observed a bright halo of material surrounding the comet, a signal that it’s actively producing dust. This is great news for backyard astronomers, since dust and ice are what contribute to comets’ beautiful, long tails!
If these early observations hold true, PANSTARRS should dazzle the eye as it passes around the Sun. Its tail could stretch across a swatch of sky the size of your hand! Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is, “When can I see Comet PANSTARRS?”
Southern Hemisphere Observers
Starting in late November, the comet will be visible with telescopes of about 8 inches and larger, like the Celestron NexStar 8SE. Observers south of the equator will find it hanging around the early evening
constellations of Lupus and Scorpius. As it continues towards the Sun, it will begin a brightening trend, slightly gaining brightness every few days. By early December, PANSTARRS will be in the middle of the constellation of Scorpius and shine about as bright as an average galaxy.
The real excitement begins in January 2013. By mid-month, PANSTARRS will have journeyed into the Scorpius/Corona Australis border, dancing in the skies for Southern Hemisphere observers at magnitude 8! This puts the comet’s visibility well within reach of amateur telescopes like the AstroMaster 130EQ or NexStar SLT 102. Larger binoculars like the SkyMaster 15x70 will also provide good views of the comet.
In early Feburary, PANSTARRS reaches the southernmost point in its journey and will appear to change directions in the night sky. The brightening trend continues to speed up so that by mid-February, Comet PANSTARRS should be an unaided eye “fuzzy” located in the vicinity of the southern constellation of Microscopium.
As it dives toward the Sun, it will move into the constellation of Pisces, easily visible in the Southern Hemisphere without optical aid. It should be about as easy to spot as major stars, so even observers in urban areas can spot it. PANSTARRS passes closest to Earth on March 5th just slightly more distant than the Earth is from the Sun. Finally, on March 10th, it makes a close pass around the Sun, known as perihelion. At this point, the comet will be less than a third of the distance between the Earth and Sun.
Celestron Comet Expert