Comet Pan-STARRS could be visible in the Local 6 area
A visit to our part of the solar system from a comet is fairly rare, and the opportunity to see a comet with our naked eye is even more rare! But 2013 may be a good year for skywatchers, as not one, but two comets could be visible...the first of which is called Comet Pan-STARRS. (The name is short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, a team project in Hawaii that discovered this comet in June 2011.) Comet Pan-STARRS could be visible over the next two weeks in the northern hemisphere. A second comet, called Comet ISON, will be putting on a show later this fall. Astronomers are still tracking Comet ISON, and will have a better idea of exactly when it will be visible by this summer.
The Comet Pan-STARRS could be visible to our area as early as tonight (March 7), but the best dates to look for the comet will be Tuesday, March 12, and Wednesday, March 13...weather permitting.
If you are planning to try to spot the comet tonight, you'll want to look to the west, just to the left of the setting sun. The comet will be very low on the horizon, so you'll need a flat location that is unobstructed by trees and buildings. The best time to see the comet will be about 30 minutes after sunset....if you look too soon after sunset, leftover sunlight will overwhelm the comet's light. However, the comet will set very quickly, so don't wait long after sunset to start looking for it! The comet has not been as bright as most astronomers were hoping for, so you'll most likely need a good pair of binoculars to see it well.
We're expecting cloudy skies at sunset from Saturday though Monday night, but hopefully skies will clear out on Tuesday and Wednesday when the comet should be the easiest to find. By then, the comet will have moved a bit higher in the western sky, and will be close to an easily-seen crescent moon. Even then, binoculars will be a good idea. Beyond the middle of next week, the comet will rise higher in the sky, but will also grow more and more faint. Astronomers say comets are difficult to predict and can be challenging to spot, so be patient. However, if you do spot Comet Pan-STARRS, be sure to share your experiences and photos with us!