Have you seen spectacular Comet PANSTARRS yet? 2013 could very well be the year of the comet as several of these potentially spectacular visitors will be visiting Earth's skies this year. Despite having no potential to be brighter than the Full Moon (that's Comet ISON, which is due in November), Comet PANSTARRS, is stealing the headlines now as it is currently putting on quite a show right now.
Key words: right now.
According to spaceweather.com (go to the March 17 archive if the story has disappeared), recent observations have indicated an intriguing possibility: Comet PANSTARRS might be disintegrating. The news comes via veteran astrophotographer Peter Rosen, who has captured what appears to be a fragmenting nucleus in his images. The evidence? A white speck below the main nucleus that, according to Rosen, follows the comet, not the background stars.
For comets, disintegration is not unheard of. Just a few years ago, once-purported 'doomsday' Comet Elenin famously disintegrated upon close approach to the Sun. Even in the darkness of space, comets can disintegrate, with Shoemaker-Levy 9, which was ripped to shreds by Jupiter's huge gravitational pull, being a prime example.
As for the comet itself, PANSTARRS was at perihelion, which is a fancy way of saying that it was at the point in its orbit closest to the Sun, this past weekend. So, with the comet being so close to the Sun it will be exposed to the greatest amount of heat, which will cause the icy comet to melt, brighten, and grow the distinctive cometary tail. Result: the comet is a sight to behold.
Just a month ago, PANSTARRS was still outside of naked eye visibility and behind previous brightness estimates. However, in the past two weeks, the comet has brightened to around zero magnitude, grown a tail, and become a relatively easy target for binocular (and even naked eye provided you have good eyesight) observation.
So, how does one go about seeing the comet?
Since Daylight Savings Time has returned, the best time to look for Comet PANSTARRS is between 7:45 and 8:00pm, which is the narrow window if time where the sky is dark enough to see the comet before it sets. To find the comet, go outside and look due West about 5 degrees above the horizon. For a comparison, hold three fingers out at arm's length to simulate 5 angular degrees. Another tip: if you have binoculars, use them to scan the sky and pick up the comet, then try and spot it with the naked eye.
Looking to do some comet watching in the Cleveland area? As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock if you plan to head out and look at the stars this coming week.
As of this writing, things are looking decidedly iffy all week. The good news: it only takes one short break in the clouds to catch a glimpse of the comet, so, even if things look iffy, go out and take a look and hopefully you can catch a lucky break, literally. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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Bodzash Photography & Astronomy