Here’s my problem: I live in Milwaukee. I can forget the mass of people, the traffic, even the myriad sky-pollution lights. But nobody here ever forgets the weather. And this winter has been brutal. It hasn’t been unusually cold, but it has been really cloudy. And that has brought disappointment to the amateur astronomers who live in the area.
By every prediction, the evening of March 9 was to be the one to catch Comet PANSTARRS at its brightest. We had snow here — not a lot, but that stuff comes from clouds, which prevented me from seeing the comet. The next three nights were equally cloudy. (Equally, as in 100 percent.) But last night, bucking all the odds, it was clear.
So my wife, Holley, and I each grabbed binoculars and headed to a high point of land near our home. This location is pretty good because it has a western horizon view uncluttered by buildings.
The fingernail-thin crescent Moon stood 17° above the horizon with the comet precisely 10° to its west-southwest. Ya, in theory. But would we see it?
After about five minutes of bino-scanning the sky from our truck’s cab (the temperature was in the low 20s with a brisk wind), Holley exclaimed, “That’s it, straight ahead!” So, out we went and, indeed, there was Comet PANSTARRS. And it looked pretty good considering how much twilight still remained.
After another 10 minutes or so, we realized we could see the coma (the gaseous envelope that surrounds the icy nucleus) naked eye. We couldn’t detect the comet’s tail without optical aid, but the starlike coma appeared easily just 6° above the horizon. “This bad boy is pretty bright,” I thought. I scanned the sky and couldn’t see any stars at the same altitude. In fact, the only ones close to the comet’s height above the horizon were a few 2nd-magnitude stars across the sky (where it was much darker).
Holley was using 7x50 binoculars, while mine were 18x50 and image-stabilized. We both agreed that extra magnification really brought out structure in the tail, including its fanlike shape.
So, is Comet PANSTARRS disappointing? Not even close. Remember, however, that it’s now heading out from the Sun, so it will get fainter each night. That said, this standout should be a superb telescopic sight for several months.
Bring on Comet ISON!
For complete coverage of Comet PANSTARRS, visit www.Astronomy.com/panstarrs.
I think the "disappointing" is more a matter of expectations. I wrote about this on my own blog before the comet hit naked eye visibility, because many science writers - some even directly in the astronomy/space field - were breathlessly hyping a "NAKED EYE COMET!!" Yes, "naked eye." The Moon is naked eye during the day too. So is Venus. And what frustrated me was that there seemed to be a conflation of "naked eye" with "impressive." And not just impressive to amateur astronomers, but to the general public. Given its location, and having viewed Mercury in that kind of twilight naked eye myself, I seriously questioned how well these people knew their "stuff" when it comes to twilight viewing of a first magnitude object.
I saw it last night too - only through binoculars (I've had the same weather as you, living just south of Chicago). Couldn't spot it naked eye. My photos were amazing considering I'm not all that great at astrophotography. And to see it in 7x50 binocs? Yup, impressive - TO ME. But I use my wife and kids as a good gauge of "Impressive to anyone else" and knew this comet was not one of those.
ISON? I'm hopeful. PANSTARRS? Yes, we in the amateur astronomer community have a nice "relatively bright" comet to see - for us. But this isn't really a "general public" thing to get excited about, except for the few folks who like these kinds of things when they happen. But it's not for much more than that, at least as I see it anyway. Others can reasonably disagree.
So it's about expectations, and some expectations were set... well, sky-high early on for this comet. They've come back down to about... oh, I'd say first magnitude. :-)
Trust me, be glad you saw it. Here is what happened to me. I live in Slidell, Louisiana and decided to drive right across the State line into the acoustic easement around NASA's Stennis Space Center in Southwest Mississippi, a distance of 16 miles, 2 miles of which are waste, because of the lack of adequate Interstate interchanges in this area. I have to go a mile in the wrong direction to get on I-12. At least they finally finished the widening after 2 years of 'work'.
Anyway, I was fortunate to grab my 14X100 mm Orion binoculars and a tripod before I set out on my quest, because there was no way I could have found the comet without them. The sky was too bright, and the comet was too faint. Luckily, I had the Moon to guide me to the right spot to search with the binoculars, or I would have never seen it. Without a compass, it is hard to locate due West after the sun sets. The horizon kind of all bleeds together, and you don't know where to search. Even 3 degrees doesn't cover a lot of the sky, but fortunately, I eventually found it on the 12th. The tail of the comet looked quite wide to me. Only by using the binoculars to guide me could I barely see the comet without the binoculars, and then only with adverted vision much of the time.
Of course, without the 125,000 acre easement which was depopulated by NASA in 1962, the light pollution around here, when combined with the haze at sea level, would have prevented me from ever seeing it. Since it was on a bad trajectory, the comet set early. I looked at my antique cell phone, and it was 8:09 when I lost it in the pine trees that the clear cutting must have missed. Shortly before that, it got dark enough for the Navy SEALS based there to start opening up with electrically driven mini guns. Then they decided to set off some explosives that lit up the sky, so I decided to leave. Too bad they didn't shoot down the mosquitoes. I foolishly thought that mosquitoes weren't active at 50 degrees. I was wrong. I was ready to leave anyway because the roar from Interstate 10 was annoying enough without the machine guns and flash powder explosives. Luckily, I don't drink, because a sheriff in a pickup truck flagged me down to warn me to dim my headlights, which I neglected to do because I had to stop in the abandoned highway after I realized that I had left my expensive LED aluminum flashlight on my hood. He reported that he has been seeing a lot of meteors in there. Why they patrol dead end roads where nobody lives, I decided not to inquire.
Even though my first expedition didn't go exactly as planned, I decided to return on the 14th. Between the trillions of mosquitoes and 60 inches of annual rainfall, you don't get many good nights around here. And then there is the winter fog. On my second trip the Moon wasn't as much help finding the comet, but I was able to locate it because I knew about where to search. It looked fainter on Thursday that it did on Tuesday. I could barely see it without the binoculars, even using the pine trees as a guide. I intended to watch it until it disappeared into the distant trees, foolishly thinking that as it got darker and darker, the comet would really stand out. I was somewhat disappointed because as the sky finally got dark, even though I was looking through the huge lenses of excellent quality, I was also looking through many more miles of dirty air. As fast as the sky darkened, the comet sunk lower into the haze. It got so faint that I quit moving the binoculars around to avoid the few trees way out there that were obstructing my view. A bit sad, I bid farewell to Comet Panstarrs.
Since it was still early, and not wanting to waste finite fossil fuel with an additional trip, I decided to finally drive to the site of the former Logtown on the East Pearl River. I had searched Google Earth for hours looking for the darkest nearby spot and abandoned Logtown looked like it had potential. Did it ever. The local government built a boat launch on the river and you can look due south out into the darkness toward the Gulf of Mexico. After I got out of the Expedition, I looked around and noticed something fuzzy nearly directly overhead. I grabbed the binoculars and saw that it was a star cluster. The horizon to the East, across the river and 4 miles of swamp is lit by the light pollution from Slidell, but it isn't too bad. The mosquitoes will soon be. But it is only 16 miles from home on divided highway nearly all the way, the perfect spot for Comet ISON? Watch them run power lines and put up vapor lights. Target practice? Not me, but some folks around here would. They would need the SEALS to guard it. I just need to resist speeding down deserted 2 lane highways at night at 70. Deer and feral hogs love swampy woods. So I saw Panstarrs and discovered the darkest spot around here where trees don't block you view of much of the sky. That can be a problem on flat topography inhabited by pines that grow to 100 feet tall. And I can finally see a nice dark southern sky looking out over the East Pearl River.
Don't be shocked if there is a volcanic eruption, a big one, around September.
I would not say disappointing, on the contrary. I manage to go to a cow field in central Panama, a trip that took about three hours (the fastest highway here is 62 mph and you had to slow down for about forty towns, the Interamerican Highway crosses through almost every other town and village in central Panama). The go around to find an isolated spot but near actual living people. So on March 13, at about 6:15pm we setup our 114mm EQ telescope with 20mm eyepiece. The forecast was clear skies, but as it usually happens in the tropics, a cloud came in just about the right time below the moon, its lower part about where PanSTARRS would show. We waited and waited, and about 6:55pm there it was, but too dim to get a decent picture. We had a 14Mpixel consumer digital camera with the camera adapter, and also a converted CMOS 1.3 Mpixel webcam, but it was not bright enough, very close to the picture shown by Tony Rowell. I also had a classical 35mm manual camera and took pictures with 3 to 5 to 10 sec exposures, ASA400 (only film available here nowadays), I am waiting for the film to be developed and digitized.
So, my wife and I were able to see our first comet through our basic reflector telescope (original cost $160 added a motor drive, eyepieces and filters), after chasing it for days waiting for clear days. So, we are not disappointed. On the contrary, we were excited to see the same comet other have seen with expensive digital cameras, telephotos, etc.
We are now taking picture of the apparent close encounter between the Moon and Jupiter. We videographed and stacked the conjunction between Moon and Jupiter on January 21st.
Greetings from Panama, down in Central America.
As an amateur astronomer who has seen many dozens of comets, I was happy to be able to observe C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) but, in my opinion, Comet PanSTARRS would disappoint a typical member of the general public. For instance, on the evening of March 10th, when the comet was near perihelion, a local television weatherman was encouraging people to look for Comet PanSTARRS after sunset. I knew that it would be almost impossible to see it from my area on that evening, even with a great western horizon and a telescope or large binoculars pointed at the precise location of the comet. Who knows how many people went outside and were, of course, unable to see a comet.
The following are reports on my four sightings of Comet PanSTARRS:
Comet PanSTARRS - Success!
I was at a location with an excellent western horizon on Tuesday evening, March 12th, but had no luck detecting Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) through a rather small break in an otherwise overcast sky. There was no chance at all of seeing it the previous two days, due to the weather.
My sister's birthday was the next day. After having dinner at her and her husband's house, I drove about a mile to a spot with a good western horizon. I wasn't too optimistic about seeing the comet but there were some large holes in the clouds to the west and eventually I could see the young crescent Moon. I scanned downwards to the right with Celestron Ultima 10x50s and, lo and behold, about one-third of the distance between the horizon and the Moon I caught sight of a fuzzy star-like point of light. As the sky grew darker, I could make out the small tail of Comet PanSTARRS. My Burgess 15x70s produced a much better view. The coma was rather bright but I could not see the comet with my unaided eyes.
A line of low clouds obscured the comet so I called my wife to let her know that I'd been successful. I also called one of my observing buddies who lives about an hour to the north and was told that the sky was completely cloudy there.
After a few minutes the comet emerged from the clouds. It played peek-a-boo once again as more clouds crossed its path a bit later. Eventually it disappeared into the haze.
I was able to observe Comet PanSTARRS off and on until about 8:20 p.m. EST. I saw the comet for a total of about 25 minutes. When I got back to the party, I had a piece of cake and some ice cream to celebrate.
I probably wouldn't have been able to see the comet at all had I not gone southward for my sister's birthday party.
Comet PanSTARRS from the Naylor Observatory
Thursday evening, March 14th, was rather cold and quite windy but six fellow Astronomical Society of Harrisburg members and I braved the conditions to view C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) from the ASH Naylor Observatory - www.astrohbg.org/.../Naylor_Observatory_info.html - near Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. I’d seen this visitor from the Oort Cloud for about 25 minutes the previous evening from another location through Celestron 10x50 and Burgess Optical 15x70 binoculars. On Thursday, I was able to observe the comet for about three-quarters of an hour through three Celestron binoculars (8x42s, 10x50s, and 15x70s), three refractors (an 80mm iOptron achromat, my 101mm Tele Vue TV-101 apochromat, and the 5" finder scope for the 17” classical Cassegrain), an 8" Meade LX90ACF SCT, and the observatory’s 17" classical Cassegrain.
The young owner of the iOptron refractor and the Meade SCT was able to locate Comet PanSTARRS with both go-to telescopes about 10 minutes before anyone was able to spot it with binoculars. He also captured images of the comet with a 300mm zoom lens and a Canon XTi DSLR camera that was piggybacked on top of his 8" SCT. I never saw the comet naked-eye but he did.
Comet PanSTARRS sported a short, curving dust tail. I wasn’t able to detect the weak ion tail visually. Its coma was a bright, star-like point.
The comet was fairly impressive through the 17” at 162x (40mm University Optics MK-70). It was quite low in the sky by then and had acquired a pale orange hue as a result.
I caught my last view of Comet PanSTARRS through the 8” SCT around 8:30 p.m. EST. By then, it was only a bit more than one degree above the horizon.
I also observed the crescent Moon, M41, M42 and the Sword of Orion, M44, and M45 that evening using my 101mm TV-101 and a 14mm Explore Scientific 82 degree eyepiece (38x) and Jupiter at 162 and 216x using the 17" classical Cassegrain.
Comet PanSTARRS Revisited
I was able to observe Comet PanSTARRS again on Tuesday evening, March 19th, from the Naylor Observatory using 7x50 and 15x70 binoculars, a 5" f/5 achromatic refractor, and a 17" f/15 classical Cassegrain at 118 and 162x. The comet was positioned farther to the west and seemed to be noticeably fainter than on March 14th.
The interior temperature of the French Dome was about 41 degrees initially but it was so windy that it was rather uncomfortable, even inside the dome. The big 17" Cassegrain actually moved from time to time when the wind gusted.
Afterwards, I observed Jupiter but the seeing was so bad that I was unable to see the transit of Europa's shadow that was under way. I kept the magnification relatively low (118, 144, and 162x) and stopped the 17" down to 12" with an aperture mask but was still unable to detect the shadow. I did catch Io coming out of eclipse, however.
I also observed the just-past First Quarter Moon for a bit, garnering fairly good views of craters such as Alphonsus, Archimedes, Aristillus, Arzachel, Autolycus, Cassini, Ptolemaeus, and Purbach, the Montes Alpes and Montes Caucasus mountain ranges, and Vallis Alpes (Alpine Valley).
I stayed until Ganymede reemerged from eclipse. At that time, clouds began to roll in rather rapidly. By the time I was almost home, a brief snow flurry began.
Comet PanSTARRS for the Fourth Time
I got skunked on Friday evening, March 22nd, due to low clouds (I was inside the observatory's administration building when the East Coast fireball blazed across the sky so I missed seeing 0that too), but I had success the next eveing in observing Comet PanSTARRS once more from the Naylor Observatory.
I was able to sweep the comet up in the western sky around 8:15 p.m. EDT (0:15 UT) with my 8x42s and then with my 15x70s.
Next I placed a 35mm Explore Scientific 70 degree eyepiece in the 5" f/5 finder scope (18x) and, using the 15x70s, the Telrad, and trees in the distance as landmarks, located the fading comet. I replaced the 35mm with a 14mm Explore Scientific 82 degree eyepiece and got a good look at its central condensation at 45x.
The 17" f/15 classical Cassegrain produced fine views of the comet at 118, 162, and 185x, with 162x yielding the best overall view. The central condensation was bright and the dust tail seemed to be wider and less uniform than on last Tuesday.
I made a rough sketch and tracked Comet PanSTARRS for about five minutes after it dropped below the western treeline. I could see a wisp of the comet through the tree limbs until 8:48 p.m. EDT (0:48 UT). The Argo Navis altitude-azimuth reading at the time was approximately 16 degrees and 288 degrees but I'm unsure how accurate that was.