Comet Pan-STARRS will grace northern skies this week
Comet Pan-STARRS, which is currently dazzling the night skies in the southern hemisphere, will reach its closest approach to the Earth today, and within the next few days, it will climb above the western horizon for those living in the northern hemisphere.
Comet C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS) was discovered in June 2011 using the University of Hawaii’s Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). Astronomers initially predicted that it would be a very bright comet, but up until last week, it was falling well short of expectations. However, as Pan-STARRS flew past the orbit of Mercury, it brightened significantly, finally living up to the astronomer’s hopes.
The comet became visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere as it passed inside the orbit of Venus, and those living in the northern hemisphere will be able to see it starting later this week. Exactly when will depend on how far north you live. Look for the comet in the western sky, just after sunset, starting on March 7th.
Now, for anyone who gets a little nervous when they read the words “closest approach to the Earth” (and understandably so, given the close calls we had last month), Pan-STARRS’ closest approach to us is roughly the distance between us and the Sun — 1.1 astronomical units (AU) or roughly 165 million kilometres. So, we will be perfectly safe while we enjoy the show that Pan-STARRS puts on for us.
The best viewing of Pan-STARRS should be over this coming weekend, since the moon will have already set before sundown, and the comet will be making its closest approach to the Sun. This is typically when comets become the most active, and it should develop a very long tail, making it even brighter and more spectacular in the night sky.
Don’t count Pan-STARRS out after this weekend, though. Even though the moon will be hanging around over the western hemisphere starting early next week and will set later and later until around the 27th (the Full Moon), thus spoiling the dark conditions just a bit, the combination of seeing the very young moon and the comet in the sky at the same time should make up for it by providing some great photo opportunities.