Beginning March 7th, Comet PANSTARRS will become visible in the evening sky for observers in Manitoba. This is a cool chance to see a comet, those mysterious visitors from the ragged edge of the solar system that occasionally grace our skies. But, you’ll need a pair of binoculars (and clear skies) for the best view.
What is Comet PANSTARRS? It’s a small chunk of ice only a few kilometers in diameter that is in a long, oval-shaped orbit around the sun. Most of the time it is totally invisible, but right now it is swinging close past the sun. The sun’s heat vaporizes some of the ice, and the solar wind blows the dust and gas back into a tail which can stretch for a million kilometers or more. There are millions of comets out there, but usually they are too far from both the Sun and the Earth to be visible except in large telescopes.
What’s with the name? PANSTARRS is the name of the program that discovered it – the PANnoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. Comets are named after their discovers, which in the past meant the person who first saw it. Nowadays, in the realm of automated telescopes making discoveries without human intervention, it often means an acronym instead of a name. You can learn more about the PAN-STARRS system here.
How do I see it? There is a finder chart from Sky and Telescope magazine here. While the comet is bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye, it is also in very bright twilight skies right after sunset. Most observers will probably need binoculars to see it, and a clear western horizon with no buildings, trees or streetlights to distract. The comet is about second magnitude, which is about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper, so it should be visible if the sky is clear and haze-free. It will likely look like a faint fuzzy blob, and the tail may or may not be visible. Comets are notoriously unpredictable, and can change their appearance in a matter of hours, especially if they’re as close to the Sun as this one is, so keep checking back for updates.
Can I take a picture of it? You can try! If you have a digital camera, put it on a tripod or fencepost or something sturdy and point it towards the comet. Set the camera for Manual exposure, and select an exposure time of between 2 and 10 seconds. (Check your camera’s manual for how to do this.) Take a picture and see what it looks like, then take another one with a longer exposure time and see what it looks like. Trial and error will give you a decent chance of recording this celestial interloper. Try zooming in (which usually requires a longer exposure time) and even holding the camera up to your binocular or telescope eyepiece if you have one. Today’s cameras can do some amazing things, so try yours and see what happens.
So what? Bright comets are beautiful and rare sights. Scientifically they offer a glimpse into the early days of our solar system. They’re basically left-over chunks of material that didn’t get swept up into one of the planets of our solar system, kept in a deep freeze for the last few billion years or so. Comets are responsible for most of the water on our planet, by impacting the Earth during the early days of its formation. And, they’re just cool!
Finally, another comet, Comet ISON, will appear in the sky later this year, and could be even bigger and brighter, so this is a good warm-up for observers.
We’d love to see your pictures of this comet. Send them to [email protected] and we’ll post the best ones on our website.