Comet PANSTARRS doesn’t disappoint

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, March 14, 2013

Astroimager Tony Rowell from Bishop, California, captured Comet PANSTARRS from a hillside near Highway 178 in California's Mojave Desert. He said, “This was a single 3-second exposure using my 36.3 megapixel Nikon D800E DSLR set to ISO 2000 on a Gitzo G1228 tripod with a Nikon AF Nikkor 70-300mm lens set at 200mm and f/5.6. I took this shot at 6:46 p.m. PST, March 13, 2013."
You know, I’ve heard a little buzz about town (OK, from a certain other astronomy publication) that Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4) is a bit disappointing. That contradicts the reports I’m getting from observers and imagers all over the world who think the first dirty snowball in 2013 is terrific. I mean, c’mon. Anytime a comet hits naked-eye visibility, that’s news. But how could I know for sure?

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.

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