Of Particular Significance

A Comet (Etc.) Well Worth Seeing

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 03/13/2013

I’m pleased to say that last night I found comet Pan-STARRS, which is gracing the western sky just after sunset, and so I can recommend now that you all give it a try.  Binoculars will definitely make it easier to find, and allow you to see more of it.  It looks great!  Here are some thoughts on how to find it, appropriate if you’re in a country at roughly the same latitude as the United States.  (If you live far to the north or far to the south, you’ll need to get advice from someone who found it in a latitude similar to yours.  I don’t believe people in the southern hemisphere can still see it.)

At this latitude, the comet seems to be easiest to find 40-60 minutes after sunset, as twilight fades, and just a few minutes before the comet itself sets.  Because the comet is low in the sky, you’ll want to have a very clear view of the western horizon (where the sun has just set) with as few hills, buildings and trees blocking your view as possible.

Last night, the comet was directly to the left of the thin crescent moon, by several moon widths.  I spotted it with binoculars without much trouble — it is the brightest thing in that part of the sky, other than the moon itself.  [Curiously, it didn’t seem to be where the star charts I’ve been reading from NASA, and elsewhere, said it would be — it was further from the moon than I expected, and the orientation seemed off.  Did anyone else notice this, or am I just wrong?]  It can be seen with the naked eye, but it’s much easier to find it first with binoculars!

Tonight (Wednesday), as you face west, the comet will be somewhat below and perhaps slightly to the left of the moon.  Thursday it will be much further below and probably a bit to the right.  After that the moon won’t serve as a guide, so the comet may become a bit tougher to find — though conversely it may also become easier, because it will be moving a bit further into darker skies and away from the horizon, making it show up more easily even to the naked eye.

By the way, it’s well worth seeing the comet on more than one night, even on consecutive nights, because it is close enough to Earth, and moving so fast through the solar system, that it will appear in a different location (relative to the stars) every evening.

After the comet sets, there’s more for you to see.  The moon, of course, will look especially interesting in binoculars; with a crescent moon you may be able to see shadows and mountains at the edge of craters.  There’s also earth-shine, sunlight reflected off the earth and back to the moon, which may make the dark part of the moon glow faintly.  (Earth-shine was remarkably bright tonight!)  Then look straight overhead to spot Jupiter, largest planet in the solar system, and by far the brightest object in that part of the sky.  In binoculars, you will see the planet as a disk, not a point of light.  Also, you will probably notice two, three or four little star-like objects very close to the planet and lying in  a straight line that passes through Jupiter; those are some of Jupiter’s large moons, discovered by Galileo.  They too move noticeably every day; the one nearest Jupiter circles the planet every two Earth days.  Not far from Jupiter in the sky is the dense cluster of stars called the Pleiades; the seven stars visible to the naked eye become dozens in binoculars.  And finally, look at the constellation Orion, also nearly overhead, but toward the south. Below Orion’s belt (three bright equally spaced stars oriented horizontally at sunset) is his scabbard (three stars spaced vertically at that hour, not so far apart from one another as those in the belt).  If you look at the middle “star” in his scabbard you’ll notice it is a bit misty — because it’s actually the Orion Nebula, a large region of gas and dust where new stars are forming.

With so many things to see, you’ll be glad you’re outdoors — especially if you have binoculars to help you appreciate the evening!

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4 Responses

  1. I saw this comet last night from the rooftop of our six story building in downtown Oakland California. I used my 15 x 70 binoculars to find it. I could not see it with my unaided eyes. It was a real nice sight.

    It might be possible in non light polluted sky’s to see it without optical aids. I believe Hale-Bopp was bigger and brighter, but I’m not completely sure since my last memory of Hale-Bopp was viewing it in a darker site with a 101mm telescope set at 20x magnification.

  2. Also, if you have access to a telescope look in the Orion Nebula for the four bright stars in the middle very close together called the Trapezium. Very unique.

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