Monday, March 4, 2013

Heads Up: ISON Is Coming; PANSTARRS Is Here

One of the great things about fly fishing is that we do it outside. That means the great big beautiful sky is always right there over our heads. Most of us learned pretty quickly that if you look up once in awhile you can see some amazing things. Now, even when the season's closed and even when we aren't fishing, many of us go outside just to look at the sky.

Well, it's a good time to be looking up, and here's something really amazing to look for this month.

 Comet Panstarrs at Burns Beach in northern metropolitan area in Perth, Western Australia.
 Rocks off the coast with birds and a small fishing boat. One hour after sunset in early March.

From that wonderful site Earthsky:

There’s a lot of excitement about Comet ISON, which might become a very bright comet, visible across the globe, by the end of 2013. But, before that happens, a second comet is on track to become visible to the eye alone when it’s closest to the sun in March of 2013. In February, we started to get the first photos of Comet PANSTARRS on our Facebook page, from friends in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s already visible with binoculars, and it already has a fan-shaped tail. In March 2013, this comet will come into view for Northern Hemisphere skywatchers and, by some estimates, it should brighten enough to see with the unaided eye. I was hearing “as bright as Venus” for awhile. Now I’m hearing “as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper” or “as bright as the stars in Orion’s Belt.” Just remember that comets are notoriously difficult to predict. As comet-hunter David Levy once famously said:

Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.
Throughout March 2013 the comet could be visible in the Northern Hemisphere evening sky low in the west after sunset. It will move northward each evening during March 2013 as it moves from being in front of the constellation Pisces to being in front of the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda. At this time, the comet might have a bright dust tail, and perhaps be visible to the unaided eye or binoculars. It should, at least, if it lives up to expectations. Remember to look for the comet in the vicinity of the waxing crescent moon on March 1213 and 14. The comet swings above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26.

 Around March 12 and 13 there will be some great opportunities to photograph the comet
near a thin crescent moon, in the west just after sunset. Chart via NASA.

The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii discovered this comet in June 2011. Since comets carry the names of their discoverers, it has been designated C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Only the largest telescopes on Earth could glimpse Comet PANSTARRS when it was first discovered, but amateurs telescopes began to pick it up by May 2012. By October 2012, its surrounding coma was seen to be large and fine at an estimated 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) wide.
By the way, Comet PANSTARRS is considered a non-periodic comet. It probably took millions of years to come from the great Oort comet cloud surrounding our solar system. Once it rounds the sun, experts say, its orbit will shorten to only 110,000 years. It is, for sure, a once-in-a-lifetime comet.


  1. Great info. Comets are so unpredictable, you don't know if they are going to be Great Comets until they are, so they get so little attention. The only comet I've ever seen was Hale-Bopp. I wish I understood how rare a comet of that magnitude was so I would have appreciated it more at the time.

    1. For some reason I don't remember Hale-Bopp in 1997. But I have vivid memories of Hyakutake which appeared about this time of year in 1996. I can still see it hanging over a silhouetted woodlot in the Indiana twilight. Thanks for the comment.