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?”
Northern Hemisphere Observers
By early March, Comet PANSTARRS begins to get exciting for observers in the Northern Hemisphere! If you live at very low latitude, such as near the equator, the comet should be visible to you from about March 7th to 12th. It will be low on the sunset horizon in the constellation of Pisces.
If predictions hold true, Comet PANSTARRS will then take off toward the northern constellations and become visible to viewers in the United States. By March 20th, it reaches the edge of the border between Pisces and Andromeda, still bright enough to spot with the naked eye. Of course, it will appear even more dazzling in a telescope like our SkyProdigy 130, NexStar SLT 130, or LCM 90.
As it moves further away from the Sun, and passes through the constellation Andromeda, Comet PANSTARRS will begin dimming slightly each night. By the beginning of April, it will have faded significantly, becoming dimmer than the Andromeda Galaxy, but still very visible in small telescopes like the FirstScope or TravelScope 70. You will also be able to view the comet with SkyMaster or UpClose binoculars. However, don’t delay your observations because the Moon will interfere by mid-month!
At the beginning of May, the Moon will be absent from the early evening skies and you’ll find the comet located about two hand spans above the north/northwest horizon after sunset in the Cassiopeia/Cepheus region. By now, it’s dimming fast and will require larger binoculars or mid-sized telescopes for observation. Finally, at the end of May, PANSTARRS reaches the northernmost point in its journey and will require a larger telescope to be seen.
Bye, bye PANSTARRS? Not quite. Although the comet continues to fade more and more each night, it will also become circumpolar. This is good news for observers! In early June, you’ll be able to catch the comet either after sunset in the north/northwest or in the north/northeast before sunrise. At the beginning of June 2013, PANSTARRS will be a faint, fuzzy object in the Ursa Minor region. If you have a larger telescope like our CGE PRO 1400 HD, you should be able to continue to follow the comet for at least another two months.
No matter where you are or what kind of equipment you have, you can enjoy PANSTARRS voyage through the solar system. But even as PANSTARRS fades away, a bigger and brighter comet begins its journey across the night sky—Comet ISON!
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Celestron Comet Expert