Take a Look: Comet PANSTARRS K1 Swings by the Big Dipper this Week, Sprouts Second Tail

Comets often play hard to get. That’s why we enjoy those rare opportunities when they pass close to naked eye stars. For a change, they’re easy to find! That’s exactly what happens in the coming nights when the moderately bright comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS slides past the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. I hope Rolando Ligustri’s beautiful photo, above,  entices you roll out your telescope for a look.

Comet K1 PANSTARRS glides from northern Bootes up the handle of the Big Dipper this coming week not far from the bright star Alkaid and M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. This map shows the sky facing east (west is at top, east at bottom) with stars to magnitude +11 and the comet’s position at 10 p.m. CDT daily. Click to enlarge and then print out a copy you can use at the telescope. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

If you’ve put off viewing this fuzzball because it’s been lost in the wilds of northern Bootes too long, hesitate no more. I saw it several nights ago through a 15-inch (37-cm) scope and can report a teardrop-shaped coma with a bright, not-quite-stellar nucleus. The comet sports an 8 arc minute long faint tail (1/4 the diameter of the full moon) and glows around magnitude 9-9.5. Granted I observed from dark skies, but K1 PANSTARRS could even be seen faintly in the 10×50 finderscope, putting it within range of ordinary binoculars.

Use this map to get oriented. It shows the sky facing east around 10 o’clock in late April. The comet passes very near Alkaid on April 28-29. Stellarium

Ligustri’s photo shows both gas and dust tails, but most observers will probably pick up the dust tail and strain to see the other. The comet has been moving north and slowly waxing in brightness all winter and spring. Right now, it’s ideally placed for viewing in the early evening sky and remains up all night for northern hemisphere observers. On Monday and Tuesday April 28-29 it’s within 1 degree of Alkaid, the bright star at the end of the Dipper’s handle.

C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS, discovered in May 2012 with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope from Hawaii, has been under observation a long time. Here on Sept. 13, 2013 it was a still a small, dim object of magnitude ~+13. Credit: Carl Hergenrother

In a 6-inch (15-cm) scope, expect to see a faint puff with a brighter core; observers with 8-inch and larger telescopes will more easily see the tail. K1 PANSTARRS continues to brighten through the spring and summer as it saunters from the Great Bear into Leo. In late July it will be too near the sun to view but re-emerge a month later in Hydra in the morning sky. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will be favored during the fall and early winter, though the comet will continue to hover very low in the southern morning sky for northerners. Predictions call for the PANSTARRS to reach peak brightness around magnitude +6 to +7 in mid-October.

Sounds like old C/2012 K1 will be around a good, long time. Why not get acquainted?

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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