Comet PanSTARRS Alert!

Skimming along the western horizon some 30 to 45 minutes after sunset in March, a bright new comet will be making its appearance in our evening sky.  Predicted to be easily visible even to the unaided eye—and sprouting a noticeable tale pointing northward— it promises to be quite a spectacular sight in binoculars and wide-field telescopes.

Comets are notorious for not living up to predictions (famed Comet Halley not meeting expectations at its 1986 appearance, being just one obvious example). But astronomers are confidently predicting that Comet PanSTARRS will not disappoint at its appearance this month. Discovered last summer when quite remote by an automated sky-survey project in Hawaii called PanSTARRS, this is the first of two bright comets that will grace our skies this year. (Comet ISON is the second one, which is expected to be even more spectacular this December and will be profiled in that month’s Sky Talk).

PanSTARRS will be visible above the western horizon after sunset all of March and is expected to be at its best between the 12th and the 18th of the month.  It will slowly move toward the northwestern horizon from night-to-night and should remain visible into early April. And on March 12th itself, look for a very thin crescent Moon to its right.  While predicted to be bright enough to be easily visible with the unaided eye (including its tail), it should be a stunning sight through your Edmund binoculars.  But optimum impact will likely come viewing it through low-power, wide-field telescopes like the Edmund Astroscan-Plus with its amazing 3-degrees of sky coverage (or six fill-Moon diameters!) using its 16 power eyepiece.

Hunting for comets visually through telescopes was long a traditional pursuit of amateur astronomers—ones like famed observers Leslie Peltier and David Levy. (This also included some professional astronomers like Edward Emerson Barnard, who paid the mortgage on his house from the gold medals that were once awarded for comet discoveries!)  Photography, and later electronic CCD imaging, soon largely replaced visual discoveries.  Today nearly all new comets are found though automated sky surveys like PanSTARRS.  But some are still picked up by stargazers sweeping the sky.  (And here I strongly recommend Leslie Peltier’s delightful autobiography Starlight Nights, subtitled The Adventures of a Star-Gazer, available from Sky Publishing at  I personally consider this “must-reading” for all who love the stars!)

There’s also one other sky event you should definitely put on your calendar this month.  On the evening of the 17th, looking halfway up the western sky—where you will see the not quite half-full Moon flanked to its upper right by brilliant Jupiter and to its lower left by the bright orange star Aldebaran. While a wonderful sight to the unaided eye, this heavenly “triple-treat” will be most spectacular as seen in binoculars. (But only on that night—as the Moon leaves the scene by the following evening in its never-ending eastward journey around the Earth.)

— James Mullaney

Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing.