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| Space on Apr 02, 2013

Everything you need to know: Comet PANSTARRS in April 2013

If you haven’t caught Comet PANSTARRS yet, try in early April 2013! PANSTARRS photos and viewing guide here.

Update on April 5, 2013: If you live at mid-northern latitudes or farther north, you can still catch Comet PANSTARRS in binoculars. EarthSky’s sky blogger Bruce McClure, in northern New York, saw Comet PANSTARRS with binoculars in both the morning and evening sky on April 4. And again saw the comet in the April 5 morning sky. The comet is now near the Andromeda Galaxy and the two faint fuzzies are visible within the same binocular field. They appear together in the northwest after dark, and in the northeast before dawn.

The charts below – designed for April 2013 – show the comet’s location for April 3 and April 15. Comet PANSTARRS pairs with the Andromeda galaxy in early April and climbs upward toward the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia during the first half of April. Use binoculars. Look to the northwest as soon as it gets dark, around 70 to 100 minutes after sunset. Better yet, perhaps, look for this comet in the northeast sky before dawn, around 100 to 70 minutes before sunrise. Comet PANSTARRS is intrinsically fainter now as it heads back out to the outer solar system, but it now appears against a darker sky background – especially in the morning sky – making it easier to spot. Plus the moon is waning in the morning sky. If you haven’t caught Comet PANSTARRS yet, try now!

Comet PANSTARRS and Andromeda galaxy in April evening sky

Use the constellation Cassiopeia to locate Comet PANSTARRS and the Andromeda galaxy in the first two weeks of April 2013. Look in the northwest about 75 to 100 minutes after sunset. The comet is heading toward Cassiopeia, as shown by its locations on April 3 and April 15.

Comet PANSTARRS in April morning sky

Use the constellation Cassiopeia to find Comet PANSTARRS in the morning sky before dawn (100 to 75 minutes before sunrise). On and around April 4, Comet PANSTARRS and the Andromeda galaxy readily fit into a single binocular field of view. We show the comet’s location for April 3 and 15.

By the way, there’s a second, brighter comet due to arrive on the scene later this year. Comet ISON might become a very bright comet, visible across the globe, by the end of 2013. But for now, PANSTARRS is still the comet of the hour.

A few tips on finding Comet PANSTARRS in the evening sky

Comet PANSTARRS and Andromeda galaxy in early April 2013

Photo of the Comet PANSTARRS and the Andromeda galaxy taken around midnight April 4-5 by Timothy Boocock in Trysil, Norway. Because Timothy lives so far north (61o north latitude), he’s able to see the comet all night long. Thank you Timothy! See more great photos on our Facebook page

Try star-hopping. You can draw an imaginary line from the star Aldebaran and past the Pleiades star cluster, going about four times the Aldebaran/Pleiades distance to get a ballpark idea of the comet’s location in the evening sky. Or you can star-hop using the constellation Cassiopeia in either the evening or morning sky, as shown on the above sky charts.

The brightest object in the Andromeda galaxy’s and comet’s part of the sky is the orange-colored star Mirach. (See the two sky charts above and zoomed-in evening chart below.) The Andromeda galaxy is about 8o to the right of the star Mirach in the evening sky. A fainter, white-colored star Mu Andromedae (abbreviated Mu on the sky chart) lies about midway between Mirach and the Andromeda galaxy. Remember, a typical binocular field of view spans about 5o of sky, so the stars Mirach and Mu Andromedae, or Mu Andromedae and the Andromeda galaxy should fit within the same binocular field of view. Once you see Mirach in your binoculars, go about one binocular field to the right to locate the Andromeda galaxy.

Look after dark but not too much after dark. The trick is to look when the sky is dark enough but when the comet is also high enough in the sky for optimal visibility. The best viewing window is probably from around 70 to 100 minutes after sunset, or 100 to 70 minutes before sunrise. Be sure to find a level and unobstructed horizon!

Mirach and the Andromeda galaxy

Once you find the orange-colored star Mirach with binoculars, go about one binocular field to the right to locate the Andromeda galaxy in the evening sky. The chart shows the comet’s position for late March/early April. Comet PANSTARRS has moved northward (upward toward Cassiopeia) since that date.

Look below for more about Comet PANSTARRS.

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Comet PANSTARRS with Andromeda Galaxy and a shooting star via EarthSky Facebook friend Timothy Boocock.  The Andromeda galaxy is near the top center of the photo.  Thanks, Timothy!

Comet PANSTARRS with Andromeda Galaxy and a shooting star – in late March 2013 – via EarthSky Facebook friend Timothy Boocock. The Andromeda Galaxy is near the top center of the photo. Thanks, Timothy!

Comet PANSTARRS on March 23, 2013 from our friend Susan Gies Jensen in Odessa, Washington.  She said,

Comet PANSTARRS on March 23, 2013 from our friend Susan Gies Jensen in Odessa, Washington. She said, “Was lucky to have a clear night sky last night and to find PANSTARRS (after looking for weeks)! It is pretty dim and the night was bright with the waxing moon, but I was able to find the comet with binoculars.”

EarthSky Facebook friend Ken Christison captured this photo of PANSTARRS on March 19.  He wrote,

EarthSky Facebook friend Ken Christison captured this photo of PANSTARRS on March 19. He wrote, “Pan-STARRS showed up tonight in a beautifully clear sky in North Carolina. It was visible for at least 18 minutes to my camera.”

Photo of Comet PANSTARRS taken by Garry Snow on March 14, 2013, at Canyon Lake, AZ.Thank you Garry! Click here for a larger view

Photo of Comet PANSTARRS taken by Garry Snow on March 14, 2013, at Canyon Lake, AZ.Thank you Garry! Click here for a larger view

Photo of Comet PANSTARRS (upper left, over the mountain), courtesy of Ann Dinsmore Photography. Thank you, Ann! Taken after sunset on March 13, 2013, in New Boston, NH. Click here for a larger view

Photo of Comet PANSTARRS (upper left, over the mountain), courtesy of Ann Dinsmore Photography. Thank you, Ann! Taken after sunset on March 13, 2013, in New Boston, NH. Click here for a larger view

Comet PANSTARRS on March 12, 2013 near the young moon.  Photo by Russ Vallelunga in Phoenix, Arizona on March 12, 2013.

Comet PANSTARRS on March 12, 2013 near the young moon. Photo by Russ Vallelunga in Phoenix, Arizona on March 12, 2013. Remember, the camera captures what the eye cannot see. Bring binoculars.

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. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Michael Goh. Thank you, Michael!

Comet PANSTARRS as captured by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in Australia. View larger.

EarthSky Facebook friend Luis Argerich in Buenos Aires posted this cool photo of Comet PANSTARRS on February 12. The comet is the fan-shaped object on the left. Luis caught the comet in the same photo as an iridium flare. Click here to learn about iridium flares. Awesome capture, Luis. Thank you! View larger.

Comet PANSTARRS in early March 2013

Comet PANSTARRS appears briefly in the west after sunset in March 2013. This comet appears beneath the waxing crescent moon on March 14, above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26. It finally meets with the Andromeda galaxy in early April.

Comet PANSTARRS appears briefly in the west after sunset in March 2013. This comet appears beneath the waxing crescent moon on March 14, above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26. It finally meets with the Andromeda galaxy in early April.

March 5, 2013. Comet PANSTARRS passed closest to Earth at 1.10 Astronomical Units, (AU). One AU equals one Earth-sun distance, about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. In other words, at its closest, this comet was slightly farther from us than our distance from the sun. No worries about it hitting us.

Starting about March 7, 2013. PANSTARRS began appearing above the western horizon after sunset for viewers at U.S. latitudes. To see it, you will need an unobstructed, cloudless view of the west after sunset. It is best to pick a dark spot, away from streetlights. Look in the sunset direction, as soon as the sky darkens. The comet is just above the horizon.

March 10. This is when Comet PANSTARRS was expected to be brightest. Why? The comet passed closest to the sun – as close as our sun’s innermost planet, Mercury, about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) away – on March 10. Comets are typically brightest and most active around the time they are closest to the sun when solar heating vaporizes ice and dust from the comet’s outer crust.

Comet PANSTARRS from mid- to late March 2013

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.

Throughout March 2013. As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, the comet is 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. PANSTARRS does have a tail, but it’s primarily a binocular object. The comet will swing above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26.

Comet PANSTARRS in April 2013

Comet PANSTARRS on the evening of April 6, 2013. This view is to the west that evening. The oval near the comet is the Andromeda galaxy. You’ll want a dark sky to see both the comet and the galaxy. Chart via Dave Eagle at www.eagleseye.me.uk. Used with permission. View larger.

April 2013. No matter how bright it gets in March, the comet will surely fade as April arrives, as it moves away from the sun and back out into the depths of space. But it will be located far to the north on the sky’s dome and will be circumpolar for northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. That means it might be visible somewhere in the northern sky throughout the night for northern observers. What’s more, the comet will be near in the sky to another beautiful and fuzzy object in our night sky, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the nearest large spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. If the comet truly is bright then, and if it still has a substantial tail, it’ll be an awesome photo opportunity!

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) was exceedingly faint when Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope discovered it on June 6, 2011.

The PANSTARRS 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.

Bottom line: We know PANSTARRS has been a disappointment to some, although others got fabulous photos of it. In late March and early April, 2013, the comet is still visible – perhaps more visible than it was earlier this month – as seen in Northern Hemisphere skies. Comet PANSTARRS viewing guide, plus charts, in this post.

Big sun-diving Comet ISON might be spectacular in late 2013