Glimpsing Comet Pan-STARRS Will Be All About Timing

Posted on: 4:51 pm, March 8, 2013, by , updated on: 04:54pm, March 8, 2013

The comet known as Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) is making its way through the solar system and has been close enough to Earth in recent days that it has already been visible to the naked eye to folks in the Southern Hemisphere. This rare event may be viewable by us in the Tennessee Valley during the coming nights, but catching a glimpse of the comet will be all about being in just the right place at just the right time.

Pan-STARRS over Western Australia. Credit: Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory

Pan-STARRS over Western Australia. Credit: Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory

The challenge with viewing Pan-STARRS is that its path across the sky is very close to that of the Sun’s, meaning the Sun’s glare keeps the comet hidden until just after sunset. At that point, the comet could be visible just above the western horizon for a small window of time before dipping out of sight.

The comet will gradually intensify and fade during the coming weeks and could be visible several evenings, but your best bet for seeing Pan-STARRS will be during the evening of Tuesday, March 12th for about 30 minutes after sunset (6:52PM Central Daylight Time).  You will need an unobstructed view of the western sky, which will be tricky for many of us here in the Tennessee Valley with our terrain.You may need to pre-plan so that you are in an area with no obstructions to the west by the time the sun goes down. Just look in the direction of the crescent moon (see image below).

Placement of Pan-STARRS in the western sky from the Tennessee Valley at 7:18PM CDT, March 12, 2013 (Created by Stellarium)

Placement of Pan-STARRS in the western sky from the Tennessee Valley at 7:18PM CDT, March 12, 2013 (Created by Stellarium)

Of course, we’re always at the mercy of the weather when it comes to sky-gazing, but we are expecting a weak cold-front to bring some dry, sky-clearing air into the region on Monday, so clouds shouldn’t be a big problem Tuesday evening.

Good luck and happy skywatching!

-Brandon
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