Comet PanStarrs may be visible – or not

Astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was the first professor hired at Vassar College. She had already gained a reputation in astronomy for discovering a comet in 1847. Mitchell and her widowed father moved into the Vassar Observatory, the first building of the college to be completed, in 1865. Her students did original research, according to Vassar Encyclopedia, and her astronomy classes were aroused from their sleep to study the heavens. Mitchell also used her observatory as a gathering place to discuss politics and women’s issues. For more information, go to https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu. (Vassar College)

Ah, comets: They drive us crazy. We always know where they’re going to be, but figuring out how bright they’ll get is another story.

This Tuesday and Wednesday evening, March 12 and 13, we get our chance to observe a promising-if-somewhat-iffy comet. Its name is PanStarrs, and it was originally predicted to be brilliant this month. Trouble is, it’s a first-time visitor to the inner solar system, and such comets are like cats: They do whatever they want. During the past few weeks the comet has brightened much less vigorously than expected.

As a result, it will probably not be gorgeously visible, as hoped – unless it reverses itself once more, which is always possible. It may only be somewhat visible. It may even require binoculars. I won’t kid you; it’ll be quite low in fairly bright evening twilight, though its tail will be pointing upward: a challenge, unless it surprises us and gets truly brilliant, which looks unlikely at this point. However, even a mediocre naked-eye comet is definitely worth a look.

Here’s how: At exactly 6:20 p.m. next Tuesday, be in a place with an unobstructed view to the west. Since the Catskills loom in that direction for most of us, the easiest clear western views – as I’ve said many times on these Almanac pages – are from all the Kingston mall parking lots, unless you splurge and go to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz for dinner. They’ve got great views from their Sunset Porch.

Low in that direction, the thin crescent Moon will look lovely, and oriented like a smile. If you can see the Moon, you’re positioned to see the comet right next to it. If you don’t see it, watch during the next 20 minutes or so, until around 6:40 p.m., while twilight deepens (but while the comet keeps dropping down to be just five degrees high, alas.) Maybe even sweep the area with binoculars. That should do the trick.

If it’s cloudy that night, try the next evening, Wednesday, when the comet will be slightly higher up (although beneath the Moon then). You could try Thursday evening also. Given three chances, we ought to have clear skies at least once – although the way this winter has gone, who knows?

If PanStarrs disappoints, a far more exciting comet is scheduled for this November. Check out https://bermanastronomytours.com and consider joining our group going to the Atacama Desert to catch it. If that comet, ISON, survives its extremely close encounter with the Sun at the end of November, it should be spectacular here in early December – although low also. Surely a comet as weirdly large and amazing as ISON cannot fizzle – can it?

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  1. Love this! I also found some great info on https://spacedex.com/comet-pan-starrs/ if anyone is interested!

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