February 8, 2013
Comet Watch: Be On The Lookout For March’s Comet Pan-STARRS
[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts: A Naked-Eye Comet in March 2013 ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Backyard astronomers and star watching enthusiasts need to be on the lookout in March for a comet that could possibly be seen with the naked-eye.
Comet Pan-STARRS will be passing about 100 million miles from Earth, briefly dipping inside the orbit of Mercury, and astronomers say it could become an object in the sky about as bright as some stars.
Pan-STARRS derives from what astronomers call the "Oort Cloud," which sits past Pluto's orbit where the sun is not much brighter than other stars. This cloud was named after the 20th century Dutch astronomer Jan Oort. He argued that a cloud like this must exist to account for all the "fresh" comets that fall through the inner solar system.
As far as why is this a question of whether the comet will actually be seen, Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab says it´s because you can never rule out the possibility of them doing something wild. He says comets "either flare up really bright or just rapidly dissipate away over a few days."
"This one seems to have been pretty well-behaved though, if a tad underperforming of late. But even at the lower end of our scale, at mag 2, urban viewers should be able to pick it out with binoculars if they head west from their city and get a clear horizon," he told redOrbit in an email.
According to Battams, the comet will be in the western part of the sky, and "people with good skies should be able to see it naked-eye."
He added that although it seems the comet is on course for a brightness of about mag +2, mag 0, or even brighter, "isn't completely out of the question."
As far as size goes, Battams told redOrbit that he doesn't believe anyone really has a feel for that yet, but that it is not a massive comet like Hale Bopp.
The expert said to be looking for Pan-STARRS in the low horizon, just after sunset in the western sky. It will be up there for a couple of weeks beginning around March 7th.
"So about half an hour after sunset would be a good time for your readers to take a look. It will always be quite close to the horizon, so people will want a good clear view without nearby trees or buildings in the way," he told redOrbit. "Your readers have to look fairly carefully to spot it though, as the dusk skies are far from an ideal background for spotting comets."
The best dates to look for the comet could be March 12th and 13th, when Pan-STARRS emerges not too far from the crescent moon.
Another comet will be captivating backyard astronomers later on this year as well. Comet ISON is predicted to be shining as brightly as a full Moon in broad daylight in November 2013 as it passes through the atmosphere of the sun.