Catching Comet Panstarrs

Posted by Kelly on March 14th, 2013

Photo of Comet Pan-STARRS alongside a beautiful crescent Moon

This photo was taken by Michael Rael on March 12, 2013 in Conejos, Colorado, USA.

The elusive comet had started edging into northern skies days earlier, but every sunset brought solid clouds. It wasn’t until March 13 that the day was perfectly clear (and cold), leaving me optimistic for a chance to grab the comet that night.

The Sun was setting as I was having dinner with my kids, and even though I knew I had a bit of time, I got up regularly to look out the window with my binoculars in case it showed early. A layer of distant clouds hung like a curtain across the lowest edge of the horizon, which would be the area where the comet would be once the skies were dark enough to catch it. But I stayed optimistic.

From reading Twitter and looking at photos from people to the East of my location who had already seen the comet that night, I could easily visualize where the comet would be in my sky. A thin crescent Moon was high above the comet and a little to its left. All the pictures showed the entire moon and not just its bright crescent arc, because in order to catch the faint comet they had to have exposures of a few seconds, therefore revealing the moon regions still in shadow. So I knew that my binoculars were a must. While my telescope would have given me an even better chance, I refused to get it out. Others had used binoculars alone and surely my skills were as good as theirs. Plus it was just too cold to use the telescope, and freezing my fingers off outside would turn the whole experience into a negative one.

So I sat by the window with my binoculars. And when I didn’t see anything, I tried a different window. The sky grew darker and the invisible comet dropped lower and lower toward the horizon and line of hazy clouds.

I sent out a desperate plea on Twitter to see if anyone in my time zone had spotted Comet Panstarrs yet. The response was not good. My optimism was quickly fading with the light. I decided to go upstairs and look out my son’s bedroom window where the house was darker and there were no distractions. I scanned the sky where I thought the comet should be, looking at gradations of blue, greenish yellow, and orange and then back up again. And suddenly a tiny fuzz appeared. I focused the binoculars and could see the head of the comet and the small tail stretching away from the comet in the direction of the moon.

I immediately panned down from the comet to see what landmark was just below it: the edge of my neighbour’s garage. Even though the Earth’s rotation would continue to move the comet at a bit of an angle as it set, this would help me track it down again because my binocular’s field of view was wide enough that it would still be in that field. Comet Panstarrs was already in the upper layers of those clouds. As it floated closer to the horizon it seemed to take on colour: at first it looked reddish like the clouds it was approaching and then it seemed more yellow.

My husband came in to see what I was doing and I offered him a look at the comet. I told him what landmark to look at and to raise his binoculars just above the treeline and the comet popped into view. I wanted to share my discovery with friends online, but as they were not looking from the same window as I was, my directions would be no help. So I measured from the moon instead. I looked at the moon through my binoculars, moved to the right until the moon was just out of the field of view, then panned down and the comet appeared just before the horizon. Of course the size of binoculars and field of view differ per pair, but I thought it was helpful enough that I could share how I had found it and maybe help someone else to spot it.

This is just the first of three comets that will be known to grace our skies this year. Comet Panstarrs was a bit dim (I would never have been able to see it without the binoculars), but I had bagged it. Comet Lemmon would be the next opportunity in late April in the hours before sunrise. This will be a real challenge not only because it will be the dimmest of the three but because I will have to wake up to see it. And who knows what Comet ISON will bring in November. Perhaps it will be the comet of my lifetime and crush the awe I still feel for Hale-Bopp.

If you want to see Comet Panstarrs, keep looking each night the sky is clear. Your best odds are to start scanning the sky about a half hour after sunset. The moon will be jumping up and out of the scene, unhelpful for future comparisons of where to find the comet. Look for Comet Panstarrs in the sunset’s glow in the west and it will slowly be moving a step to the right (north) each night. Let us know if you find it!

One person has commented

anne martin said,

Thank you for this article. Great Photo shot. It’s November 1 2013 at 6:00am I am seeing the same moon vision just before the sunrise today from Sacramento, CA. I am hoping to see comet ISON soon this month.

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