A Weekend of Comet PANSTARRS: Spectacular Images and Videos

Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) keeps getting easier to see, and over the weekend, we were inundated with images and videos from astrophotographers around the world. NASA says that solar heating from the comet’s close pass of the Sun last week has caused the comet to glow brighter than a first magnitude star. Bright twilight sharply reduces visibility, but it is still an easy target for binoculars and small telescopes 1 and 2 hours after sunset. And as of March 15th, people reported they can see the comet with the unaided eye.

See more images and videos below!

Timelapse of comet Panstarrs from Leiden Observatory from Fred Kamphues on Vimeo.

Photographer Fred Kamphues took this timelapse from the Leiden Observatory in The Netherlands, the oldest astronomical observatory in the world still active today. Kamphues notes that astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort of Leiden Observatory discovered the origin of comets in 1950. The observatory is used today by student astronomers to learn observing.

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) taken on March 16 from Mount Faito (Naples, Italy). Credit and copyright: Ernesto Guido & Antonio Catapano
Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) taken on March 16 from Mount Faito (Naples, Italy). Credit and copyright: Ernesto Guido & Antonio Catapano
Special filters and a negative image to try and 'tease out the structure of the tail,' says photographer David G. Strange.
Special filters and a negative image to try and ‘tease out the structure of the tail,’ says photographer David G. Strange.
Comet PANSTARRS over Tallinn, Estonia on March 16, 2013.  Credit and copyright: Karthikeyan VJ
Comet PANSTARRS over Tallinn, Estonia on March 16, 2013.
Credit and copyright: Karthikeyan VJ
Comet PANSTARRS over the San Gabriel mountains on 3/12/2013 above Pasadena,CA,  3-4 miles from Mt.Wilson. Shot with a with Canon 60D. Credit and copyright: Henry Levenson.
Comet PANSTARRS over the San Gabriel mountains on 3/12/2013 above Pasadena,CA, 3-4 miles from Mt.Wilson. Shot with a with Canon 60D. Credit and copyright: Henry Levenson.
Comet PANSTARRS, shot from near Keene, Ontario, Canada, on March 16, 2013, using a Canon 50D (modified) with Canon 200mm lens; 4 sec. exp.; f/4.5; 640 ISO. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz, Peterborough Astronomical Association (PAA)
Comet PANSTARRS, shot from near Keene, Ontario, Canada, on March 16, 2013, using a Canon 50D (modified) with Canon 200mm lens; 4 sec. exp.; f/4.5; 640 ISO. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz, Peterborough Astronomical Association (PAA)
[/caption

This video, above, from UT reader Brent (a.k.a. HelloBozos) in Florida shows this compilation of views of the Sun and the comet. “At 2:08 in the video, a bird flies in front of the camera,” Brent said via email, “This was all done off the side the road, on 3-16-13 8pm-8:30pm.”

[caption id="attachment_100801" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Comet PANSTARRS over Arizona on March 16, 2013. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur Comet PANSTARRS over Arizona on March 16, 2013. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur

This image is from Chris Schur in Arizona. He says, “Note the fan tail appearing! Also the tail is really starting to curve in the images. Very easy to see naked eye, and so was the yellow color in binoculars when it gets lower.”

Comet PANSTARRS on March 17, 2013. Credit and copyright: Andrei Juravle.
Comet PANSTARRS on March 17, 2013. Credit and copyright: Andrei Juravle.
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) taken near Koprivnica (Koprivni?ki Bregi), Croatia. Credit and copyright: Vedran Matica.
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) taken near Koprivnica (Koprivni?ki Bregi), Croatia. Credit and copyright: Vedran Matica.

Astrophotos: Latest Images and Videos of Comet PANSTARRS

You want images and videos of Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)? We’ve got ’em! We’ll start with this stunning view from Japan, taken by Jason Hill. But there’s lots more below:

A first capture of Comet PANSTARRS on March 14, 2013. Credit and copyright: Adam Wipp.
A first capture of Comet PANSTARRS on March 14, 2013. Credit and copyright: Adam Wipp.
Another first view of Comet PANSTARRS from Valencia, Spain on March 14, 2013. Credit and copyright: Alejandro Garcia.
Another first view of Comet PANSTARRS from Valencia, Spain on March 14, 2013. Credit and copyright: Alejandro Garcia.

This timelapse comes from Andrew Takano, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin:

Another great timelapse comes from a public observaing event in Greece, sent to us by J.D Strikis and the Hellenic Amateur Astronomy Association:

Comet PanStarrs C/2012 L4 Public Observing in Greece from J.D.Strikis on Vimeo.

Comet PANSTARRS on March 14, 2013, as seen in the Arizona skies. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Comet PANSTARRS on March 14, 2013, as seen in the Arizona skies. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.

Photographer Chris Schur said last night’s views were “the best and brightest comet yet in the western Arizona Sunset sky!” Schur said via email. “I was able to go much deeper tonight using an 80mm Zeiss refractor and Canon Xti. The head shows more fan like protrusions, and the tail is now really shaping up. … The comet here at our elevation of 5150 feet was very easy to see the entire time it was up, and I would rate it at first magnitude for sure.”

Comet PANSTARRS as seen from  Aarhus, Denmark (56.2 N, 10.2 E). Credit and copyright: Jens Riggelsen.
Comet PANSTARRS as seen from Aarhus, Denmark (56.2 N, 10.2 E). Credit and copyright: Jens Riggelsen.

Comet Panstarrs above Boulder, Colorado on the evening of March 13, 2013, courtesy of Patrick Cullis:

Comet PANSTARRS on March 13, 2013 as see from Newington, New Hampshire, USA. Credit and copyright: John Gianforte (theskyguy.org)
Comet PANSTARRS on March 13, 2013 as see from Newington, New Hampshire, USA. Credit and copyright: John Gianforte (theskyguy.org)
Comet PANSTARRS seen from Oakland, California.  The Port of Oakland and the Bay Bridge are in the foreground with the comet and crescent moon in the background. Taken on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jared Wilson.
Comet PANSTARRS seen from Oakland, California. The Port of Oakland and the Bay Bridge are in the foreground with the comet and crescent moon in the background. Taken on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jared Wilson.
Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) floats in the twilight sky over the lighthouses and pier at Grand Haven State Park in Grand Haven, Michigan on March 13, 2013. Credit and copyright: Kevin's Stuff on Flickr.
Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) floats in the twilight sky over the lighthouses and pier at Grand Haven State Park in Grand Haven, Michigan on March 13, 2013. Credit and copyright: Kevin’s Stuff on Flickr.
Comet PANSTARRS and a 5% illuminated Moon on March 13, 2013. Credit and copyright: Tavi Greiner.
Comet PANSTARRS and a 5% illuminated Moon on March 13, 2013. Credit and copyright: Tavi Greiner.

You can see more at our Flickr page, and we’ll keep adding and posting! Thanks to everyone who has been so generous with sharing their great photos and videos.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Watch Live Webcast of Comet PANSTARRS

UPDATE: The webcast has been moved to March 16 at 17:00 UTC (1 pm EDT) due to bad weather in Italy.

Has it been cloudy where you live and you haven’t yet been able to see Comet PANSTARRS? The Virtual Telescope Project will have a live webcast of this comet, C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS, from Italy, March 15, on March 16 at 17:00 UTC, 1 p.m. EDT. “We have been waiting for it for over one year, and now the waiting is over,” said astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, who will host the webcast, which you can see at this link. Masi said they are keeping an eye on the skies, and will keep us updated on if they need to change the time of the webcast.

If you’re waiting for the weekend to see it with your own eyes, check out our detailed guides on how to see it here and here. Both are filled with graphics and great info on how to see this comet.


This comet has been a challenge to see, and was actually closest to the Sun on March 10, meaning that is when it was at its brightest. However, while Comet PANSTARRS will fade over the next few weeks, it will also rise higher into a darker sky and become – for a time – easier to see. So keep looking!

Astrophotos: Comet PANSTARRS Meets the Crescent Moon

Astrophotographers were out in force last night to try and capture Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS) as it posed next to the setting crescent Moon. Those with clear skies were rewarded with great views, such as this very picturesque view from Arizona by Nic Leister. See more below:

Comet PANSTARRS and the Waxing Crescent Moon as seen over Castroville, Texas. Credit and copyright: Adrian New.
Comet PANSTARRS
and the Waxing Crescent Moon as seen over Castroville, Texas on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Adrian New.

Adrian New wrote via email: “Here in historic Castroville, Texas we had an impressive view of the Comet PANSTARRS and the waxing crescent Moon. Both were easily visible close to the horizon and not affected by the light towers. Taken with a Nikon D800 at ISO 800 and a 2 second exposure at F/4. Lens was a Nikon 300mm F/4.”

Comet PANSTARRS and the lunar crescent in a colorful Arizona sunset. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Comet PANSTARRS and the lunar crescent in a colorful Arizona sunset, March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.

Chris Schur said, “The comet was an easy naked eye object with tail from Arizona, at our elevation of 5150 feet.” This image was taken March 12th around 7:15 MST.

Comet PANSTARRS and the very young Moon, seen in Salem, Missouri. Credit and copyright: Joe Shuster, Lake County Astronomical Society.
Comet PANSTARRS and the very young Moon, seen in Salem, Missouri on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Joe Shuster, Lake County Astronomical Society.

Joe Shuster from Missouri said he managed to outlast some clouds to get a shot of PANSTARRS and the very young Moon. He used a Canon T1i, Nikon 200mm AIS lens, ISO 800, 4s.

Crescent Moon and Comet PANSTARRS over Columbia, Missouri. Credit and copyright: Naghrenhel on Flickr.
Crescent Moon and Comet PANSTARRS over Columbia, Missouri, March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Naghrenhel on Flickr.

Naghrenhel on Flickr shared the story of this image: “It was a very cloudy night and I’d almost given up locating the comet PanStarrs. Then I caught a glimpse of the moon, only 2% illuminated, and decided to take a picture. I was pleasantly surprised to see the moon’s companion appear. I still couldn’t see it with an unaided eye, probably due to city light pollution. But the right exposure of the camera caught the comet. Thanks to the Universe Today website informing me of their close proximity or I would have missed the comet completely.”

Comet PANSTARRS as seen from Gastonia, North Carolina on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jim Craig.
Comet PANSTARRS as seen from Gastonia, North Carolina on March 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jim Craig.
Comet PANSTARRS from 3/12/2013 at about 7:50 pm. up on Mt. Wilson above Los Angeles. Credit: Tim Song Jones.
Comet PANSTARRS from 3/12/2013 at about 7:50 pm. up on Mt. Wilson above Los Angeles. Credit: Tim Song Jones.
Comet PANSTARRS as seen through the clouds in Indianapolis, Indiana. Credit: John Chumack.
Comet PANSTARRS as seen through the clouds in Indianapolis, Indiana. Credit: John Chumack.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Comet PANSTARRS Stars in a New Timelapse Movie

NASA scientist Fred Espenak captured this wonderful timelapse video of Comet PANSTARRS as it set over the Dos Cabezas Mountains in Arizona. The photos were taken from San Simon, AZ using a Nikon D90 and Nikkor 18-200 VR zoom lens at 200mm. All exposures were 2 seconds at F/5.6 (ISO 800).

I’m now seriously jealous, as my location has been socked in with clouds all week so far. If you’re in the same boat, enjoy some more images of Comet PANSTARRS from Universe Today readers:

Comet PANSTARRS as seen over Fountain Hills, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Nice Leister,
Comet PANSTARRS as seen over Fountain Hills, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Nice Leister,
Comet PANSTARRS from Tucson, Arizona on March 11, 2013. Credit and copyright: Rob Sparks.
Comet PANSTARRS from Tucson, Arizona on March 11, 2013. Credit and copyright: Rob Sparks.
Comet PANSTARRS on March 11, 2013. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon Sky Center.
Comet PANSTARRS on March 11, 2013. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon Sky Center.
Comet PANSTARRS over Alabama USA. Credit an copyright: Kristen Lyles..
Comet PANSTARRS over Alabama USA. Credit an copyright: Kristen Lyles..

Comet PanSTARRS – The Movie from Fred Espenak on Vimeo.

Update: Comet PANSTARRS Makes Its Northern Hemisphere Debut

The first of three bright comets anticipated in 2013 became visible to North American observers this past weekend. Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS is now currently visible low to the southwest at dusk, if you know exactly where to look for it.

Observers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying this comet for the past few weeks as it reached naked eye visibility above 6th magnitude around late February and began its long trek northward. Comet PanSTARRS is on a 106,000+ year orbit with a high inclination of 84.2° with respect to the ecliptic. This also means that PanSTARRS is currently moving roughly parallel to the “0 Hour” line in Right Ascension (The same point occupied by the Sun during next week’s Vernal Equinox on March 20th) and is only slowly gaining elevation on successive evenings.

CometPANSTARRS from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

Observers in Hawaii and Mexico picked up PanSTARRS late last week, and scattered reports of sightings from the southern continental United States started trickling in Saturday night on the evening of March 9th. We managed to grab Comet PanSTARRS low to the southwest on Sunday evening on March 10th, about 30 minutes after local sunset.

Comet PanSTARRS seen from Hudson Florida on the evening of March 10th (Photo by Author).
Comet PanSTARRS seen from Hudson Florida on the evening of March 10th (Photo by Author).

We were surprised by the star-like appearance of the coma, about +1st to 2nd magnitude with a tiny fan-shaped tail. The comet was visible in binoculars only (I used our trusty pair of Canon 15×45 Image-Stabilized binocs for the task) and I couldn’t yet pick out the comet with the naked eye.

Several sightings westward followed. Clay Davis based in Santa Fe, New Mexico noted a visual magnitude of -0.5, saying that PanSTARRS was “Brighter than Mars” at magnitude +1 but “A challenge to keep in view.” Note that observer estimations of the brightness of comets can vary based on local sky conditions. Also, unlike a pinpoint star, the brightness of comets extends over its visible surface area, much like a faint nebula. The first sightings of the comet for many observers has been contingent on the weather, which can trend towards overcast for much of North America in early March. From our +28.5° northern latitude vantage point here just north of Tampa Bay Florida we had about a 10 minute window from when the sky was dark enough to spy PanSTARRS before it set below the local horizon.

Here are a few more images from Universe Today readers:

Comet Pan-STARRS as imaged by Robert Sparks (@HalfAstro) on the night of March 10th from Tucson, Arizona. All Rights Reserved, part of the Universe Today photo gallery.
Comet PanSTARRS as imaged by Robert Sparks (@HalfAstro) on the night of March 10th from Tucson, Arizona. All Rights Reserved, part of the Universe Today photo gallery.
First views of Comet PANSSTARRS from Tucson, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
First views of Comet PANSSTARRS from Tucson, Arizona. Credit and copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
Comet PANSTARRS from Puerto Rico on March 10, 2013. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.
Comet PANSTARRS from Puerto Rico on March 10, 2013. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

To see the comet we suggest;

  1. A clear uncluttered southwestern horizon;
  2. A reasonably clear sky;
  3. Binoculars.

First naked eye sightings of the comet for U.S. and European latitudes should be forthcoming over the next few evenings. PanSTARRS just passed perihelion yesterday on March 10th at 0.3 Astronomical Units from the Sun (or 46.5 million kilometres, just inside the orbit of Mercury).

Comet PanSTARRS looking west at 8PM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Comet PanSTARRS looking west at 8PM EDT the evening of March 12th  from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

And Comet PanSTARRS may put on its best show over the next few nights. The Moon reaches New phase today at 3:51PM EDT/ 19:51 UT and starts lunation number 1116. On the next few evenings, the slim crescent Moon will slide by Comet PanSTARRS. Look for the 2% illuminated Moon 5° to the lower right of the comet on the evening of Tuesday March 12th. On the next evening, the 5% illuminated Moon will be 9° above Comet PanSTARRS on Wednesday, March 13th. The age of the Moon will be 28 hours old on Tuesday evening and 52 hours on Wednesday the 13th respectively, an easy catch. The Moonwatch website is a great place to check for those early lunar crescent sighting possibilities worldwide. Note that Comet PanSTARRS also passes less than 30’ from the planet Uranus (about the diameter of the Full Moon) on the evening of the 12th at 8 PM EDT/24UT. +6th magnitude Uranus may just be visible near the head of the comet using binoculars or a small telescope. Keep in mind, they just appear to be close as seen from our Earthly vantage point. PanSTARRS is currently 1.1 A.U.s from the Earth, while Uranus is on the other side of the solar system at 21 A.U.s distant!

Comet PanSTARRS looking west at 8PM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north on the evening of March 13th. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Comet PanSTARRS looking west at 8PM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north on the evening of March 13th. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

PanSTARRS also crosses the Celestial Equator today on March 11th and the Ecliptic on March 13th. Observers from dark sky sites may get the added bonus of the zodiacal light, a true photographic opportunity!

Spacecraft studying the Sun are also giving us views of Comet PanSTARRS from a different perspective. NASA’s twin STEREO A & B spacecraft are positioned to monitor the Sun from different vantage points along the Earth’s orbit. Often, they see comets as an added bonus. Comet PanSTARRS has just moved into the field of view of STEREO-B’s Heliospheric Imager and has given us amazing views of the comet and the Earth in the distance over the past week.

The view of Comet PanSTARRS from NASA's STEREO Behind observatory. (Credit: NASA/SECCHI).
The view of Comet PanSTARRS from NASA’s STEREO Behind observatory. (Credit: NASA/SECCHI).

From STEREO, the remarkable fan-shaped dust tail of PanSTARRS stands out in profile. The dust tail of a comet always points away from the Sun. Driven by the solar wind, a comet’s tail is actually in front of it as it heads back out of the solar system! An ultimate animation of Comet PanSTARRS just came to our attention today via @SungrazerComets on Twitter;

Animation of comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS entering STEREO-B's HI camera, note the twin ion/dust tail reminiscent of Hale-Bopp! (Credit: NASA/STEREO/NRL).
Animation of comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS entering STEREO-B’s HI camera, note the twin ion/dust tail reminiscent of Hale-Bopp! (Credit: NASA/STEREO/NRL).

As of this writing, PanSTARRS seems to be performing as per predictions with an observed magnitude of around +1. The comet will continue on its northward trek, becoming a circumpolar object for observers based around latitude 50° north on April 2nd. Comet PanSTARRS should dip back below +6th magnitude around April 15th.

Comet PanSTARRS as imaged by Mike Weasner from Cassiopeia Observatory in southern Arizona on the night of March 10th. Used with permission.
Comet PanSTARRS as imaged by Mike Weasner from Cassiopeia Observatory in southern Arizona on the night of March 10th. Used with permission.

But this is but Act One in a forecasted three act cometary saga for 2013. Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon will grace early dawn skies in April for northern hemisphere observers, and then all eyes will be on Comet C/2012 S1 ISON for the hoped for grand finale later this year. Interestingly, ESA’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory will get a look at this sungrazing comet as it passes through its LASCO C3 camera’s field of view. Clear skies, and may 2013 go down as the Year of the Comet!

-Check out photos of Comet PanSTARRS and more being added daily to the Universe Today’s Flickr gallery.

A Guide to Help You See Comet PANSTARRS at its Brightest

This is the big week so many of us in the northern hemisphere have been waiting for. Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS, which has put on a splendid show in the southern hemisphere, now finally comes to a sky near us northerners!

Sky watchers in Australia and southern South America report it looks like a fuzzy star a little brighter than those in the Big Dipper with a short stub of a tail  visible to the naked eye. The comet should brighten further as it wings its way sunward. Closest approach to the sun happens on March 10 at a distance of 28 million miles. That’s about 8 million miles closer than the orbit of Mercury.

Though very low in the western sky after sundown, the comet should be visible across much of the U.S., southern Canada and Europe beginning tonight March 8.

Comet PANSTARRS will be visible tonight through about March 19 for sky watchers living near the equator. Map is drawn for Singapore. All maps created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet PANSTARRS will be visible through about March 19 for sky watchers living near the equator. Map is drawn for Singapore. All maps created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

PANSTARRS’ low altitude presents a few challenges. Approaching clouds, general haziness and the extra thickness of the atmosphere near the horizon absorbs the comet’s light, causing it to appear fainter than you’d expect. A casual sky watcher may not even notice its presence. That’s why I recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars and using the map that best fits your latitude. Find a place with a wide open view to the west, focus your binoculars on the most distant object you can find (clouds are ideal) and then slowly sweep back and forth across the sky low above the western horizon

Comet PANSTARRS map for the southern U.S. March 6-21. Time shown is about 25 minutes after sunset facing west. Map is drawn for Phoenix, Ariz.
Comet PANSTARRS map for the southern U.S. March 6-21. Time shown is about 25 minutes after sunset facing west. Map is drawn for Phoenix, Ariz.

As the nights pass, PANSTARRS rises higher in the sky and becomes easier to spot for northern hemisphere observers while disappearing from view in the south. On the 12th, a thin lunar crescent will shine just to the right of the comet. Not only will it make finding this fuzzy visitor easy-peasy, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a beautiful photograph.

Comet PANSTARRS and thin crescent moon should be a striking site about a half hour to 45 minutes after sunset on March 12. Stellarium
Comet PANSTARRS and the thin crescent Moon should make a striking sight together about a half hour to 45 minutes after sunset on March 12. Stellarium

The maps shows the arc of the comet across the western sky in the coming two weeks for three different latitudes. Along the bottom of each map is the comet’s altitude in degrees for the four labeled dates. The sun, which is below the horizon, but whose bright glow you’ll see above its setting point, will help you determine exactly in what direction to look.

One of your best observing tools and the one closest at hand (pun intended) is your hand. Photo: Bob King
One of your best observing tools and the one closest at hand (pun intended) is your hand. Photo: Bob King

A word about altitude. Astronomers measure it in degrees. One degree is the width of your little finger held at arm’s length against the sky. Believe it or not, this covers two full moon’s worth of sky. Three fingers at arm’s length equals 5 degrees or the separation between the two stars at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper. A fist is 10 degrees. This weekend PANSTARRS will be 2-3 “fingers” high around 25 minutes after sunset when the sky is dark enough to go for it.

The northern U.S. is favored for this leg of the comet's journey. Notice how the comet arcs up higher in the sky compared to the southern U.S. and especially the equator. Map drawn for Duluth, Minn. The comet will remain visible for many weeks. Earth is closest to PANSTARRS on March 5 at 102 million miles.
The northern U.S. is favored for this leg of the comet’s journey. Notice how the comet arcs up higher in the sky compared to the southern U.S. and especially the equator. Map drawn for Duluth, Minn. The comet will remain visible for many weeks. Earth is closest to PANSTARRS on March 5 at 102 million miles.

To find PANSTARRS, locate it on the map for a particular date, note its approximate altitude and relation to where the sun set and look in that direction. Assuming your sky to the west is wide open and clear, you should see a comet staring back. If you don’t find it one night, don’t give up. Go out the next clear night and try again. While Comet PANSTARRS will fade over the next few weeks, it will also rise higher into a darker sky and become – for a time – easier to see. I also encourage you to take out your telescope for a look. You’ll see more color in the comet’s head, details in its tail and an intensely bright nucleus (center of the comet), a sign of how fiercely sunlight and solar heating are beating up on this tender object.

Sound good? Great – now have at it!

Astrophoto: A Night of Two Comets

While those of us in the northern hemisphere are impatiently waiting to see Comet PANSTARRS (tonight, March 7 it should be visible in the southern parts of the US and Europe just after twilight), southern hemisphere observers have been dazzled by not one but TWO comets. Here, astrophotographer Guillermo Abramson captures both PANSTARRS and Comet Lemmon in one shot on March 4, 2013!

Below is a great shot Abramson took of Comet PANSTARRS on March 3:

Comet PANSTARRS sets behind Mt. Cathedral, in Bariloche, Argentina. Credit and copyright: Guillermo Abramson.
Comet PANSTARRS sets behind Mt. Cathedral, in Bariloche, Argentina. Credit and copyright: Guillermo Abramson.

If you need info on how to see Comet PANSTARRS this month, check out our detailed guide here.

With this being the Year of the Comets make sure to submit all your comet astrophotos to our Flickr page. We’ll be posting more images from comet-watchers soon!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Comet PANSTARRS Crosses Paths With Zodiacal Light

With the much-anticipated PANSTARRS comet emerging into the evening sky this week, we might keep our eyes open to another sight happening at nearly the same time. If you live where the sky to the west is very dark, look for the zodiacal light, a tapering cone of softly-luminous light slanting up from the western horizon toward the bright planet Jupiter near twilight’s end.

It makes its first appearance about 75 minutes after sunset and lingers for an hour and a half. Sunlight reflected from countless dust particles shed by comets and to a lesser degree by colliding asteroids is responsible for this little-noticed phenomenon. Comets orbiting approximately in the plane of the solar system between Jupiter and the sun are its key contributors. Jupiter’s gravity stirs the works into a pancake-like cloud that permeates the inner solar system.

The zodiacal is formed of dust left behind by comets orbiting between Jupiter and the sun and forms a pancake-like structure in the plane of the planets. Illustration: Bob King
The zodiacal is formed of dust left behind by comets orbiting between Jupiter and the sun and forms a pancake-like structure in the plane of the planets. Illustration: Bob King

More of us would be more aware of the zodiacal light if we knew better when and where to look. While a dark sky is essential, you don’t have to move to the Atacama Desert. I live 9 miles from a moderate-sized, light-polluted city; the western sky is terrible but the east is plenty dark and ideal for watching the morning zodiacal light in the fall months.

Near its base, the cone easily matches the summer Milky Way in brightness and spans about two fists held horizontally at arm’s length. At first glance you’d be tempted to think it was the lingering glow of twilight until you realize it’s nearly two hours after sunset. The farther you follow up the cone, the fainter and narrower it becomes. From top to bottom the light pyramid measures nearly five fists long. In other words, it’s HUGE.

The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky 90 minutes after sunset in early March facing west. Created with Stellarium
The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky facing west 90 minutes after sunset in early March. Created with Stellarium

The zodiacal light is centered on the same path the sun and planets take through the sky called the ecliptic, an imaginary circle that runs through the familiar 12 constellations of the zodiac. Every spring, that path intersects the western horizon at dusk at a steep angle, tilting the light cone up into clear view. A similar situation happens in the eastern sky before dawn in October. Of course the light’s there all year long, but we don’t notice it because it’s slanted at a lower angle and blends into the hazy air near the horizon.

The zodiacal light we see at dusk is a portion of the larger zodiacal dust cloud that extends at least to Jupiter’s distance (~500 million miles) on either side of the Sun, making it the single biggest thing in the Solar System visible with the naked eye. Under exceptional skies, like those found on distant mountaintops or far from city lights, the cone tapers into the zodiacal band that completely encircles the sky.

The gegenschein is the small, oval glow within the zodiacal band seen in this photo taken at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO / Yuri Beletsky
The gegenschein is the small, oval glow within the zodiacal band seen in this photo taken at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO / Yuri Beletsky

Exactly opposite the sun around local midnight, you might see an enhancement in the band called the gegenschein (GAY-gen-shine). This eerie oval glow is caused by sunlight shining directly on interplanetary dust grains and then back to your eye. A similar boost happens for the same reason at the time of full moon.

Deep connections abound throughout the universe. Over time, much of the comet dust in the zodiacal cloud either spirals inward toward the sun or gets pushed outward by solar radiation. The fact that we can still see it today means it’s continually being replenished by the silent comings and goings of comets.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS photographed with a 200mm telephoto lens over Bridgetown, Western Australia on March 3. Credit: Jim Gifford
Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS photographed with a 200mm telephoto lens over Bridgetown, Western Australia on March 3.
Credit: Jim Gifford

Consider Comet L4 PANSTARRS. Dribs and drabs of dust sputtered from this comet during its current trip to the inner solar system may find their way into the zodiacal cloud to secure its presence for future sky watchers. How wonderful then the comet and the ghostly light should happen to be at their best the very same time of year.

Zodical light touching the Seven Sisters star cluster also known as the Pleiades March 19, 2012. Credit: Bob King
Zodical light touching the Seven Sisters star cluster also known as the Pleiades March 19, 2012. Credit: Bob King

Now through March 13 is the ideal time for zodiacal light viewing. If you begin your evening with Comet PANSTARRS, stick around until nightfall to spot the light. Face west and cast a wide view across the sky, sweeping your gaze from left to right and back again. Look for a big, hazy glow reaching from the horizon toward the Planet Jupiter. After the 13th, the waxing moon will wash out the subtle light cone for a time. Another “zodiacal window” opens up in late March through mid-April when the moon comes up too late to spoil the view.

As you take in the sight, consider how something as small as a dust mote, when teamed with its mates, can create a jaw-dropping comet’s tail, meet its end in the fiery finale of a meteor shower or span a billion miles of space.

Comet PANSTARRS: How to See it in March 2013

Great ready. After much anticipation, we could have the first naked eye comet of 2013 for northern hemisphere observers in early March. As discussed earlier this week on Universe Today, 2013 may well be the Year of the Comet, with two bright comets currently putting on a show in the southern hemisphere and comet C/2012 S1 ISON set to perform the closing cometary act of 2013. But while comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon won’t be visible for northern hemisphere residents until April, Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS (which we’ll refer to simply as “Comet PanSTARRS” from here on out) may well become a fine early evening object in the first two weeks of March.

That is, if it performs. Comets are often like cats. Though we love posting pictures of them on the Internet, they often stubbornly refuse to perform up to our expectations. Some comets have been solid performers, like Hale-Bopp in 1997. Others are often promoted to great fanfare like Comet Kohoutek in 1973-74, only to fizzle and fade into notoriety.
Continue reading “Comet PANSTARRS: How to See it in March 2013”