Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS has been wowing observers in the southern hemisphere recently and there have been some fantastic images taken of it. So when do we in Armagh get a chance to see this visitor from the Oort Cloud? The answer is next week!
Comet PANSTARRS reaches perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun on 10 March, after this it will start to move away from the Sun and to be visible in the twilight sky to observers in the northern hemisphere. It will appear as a faint elongated ‘smudge’ hanging low in the sky (note comets do not zoom across the sky) and may be tricky to find as even half an hour after sunset the sky will still be very bright. You will need to find a relatively clear and unobstructed horizon.
On 12 and 13 March it will be seen in the western twilight not far from the crescent Moon. You can use the Moon to find it. On 12 March the comet will be to the Moon’s upper left. On 13 March, the comet will be to the Moon’s lower right. The head of the comet has not been visible to the unaided eye, to find and get a good view of the tail you will need binoculars or a small telescope. BE VERY CAREFUL USING BINOCULARS OR A TELESCOPE IF THE SUN IS STILL IN THE SKY! On successive nights this week the comet will continue to be visible but will be further from the Moon.
At 7.15 on 13 March I observed the comet with a pair of 7×50 binoculars. It was a very faint and delicate white ‘feather’ against a deep golden sky. It took quite some effort to find even with binoculars and I could not see it at all without them. This is not a spectacular object by any means but it still worth finding so pretty a sight.
Hopefully spotting PANSTARRS will be great practice for finding Comet ISON in the autumn!
(Article by Colin Johnston, Armagh Planetarium)