No doubt about it, the first of two visible comets in 2013 was a source of frustration to many in the Northern Hemisphere in March, 2013. Despite many beautiful photos of the comet, few saw PANSTARRS, and those who did said they needed binoculars to spot the comet in the western twilight. Comet PANSTARRS was closest to the sun on March 10, and since then it’s been receding from the sun and Earth, heading back to the outer solar system. As a result, it’s been getting fainter … and fainter. Yet you might still see PANSTARRS in the first few weeks of April, in the northwest as soon as the sky begins to darken – and in the northeast before dawn. In fact, EarthSky sky blogger Bruce McClure said he spotted it with binoculars from northern New York in both the evening and morning sky on April 3.
Why can we see it better now? Earlier in March, PANSTARRS was visible only in a very bright twilight sky, shortly after sunset. For mid-northern latitudes and farther north, the comet has moved in front of a darker sky background. It’s seen later after dark – and earlier before dawn. But, as night falls, you have a brief opportunity (less than an hour) to glimpse the comet in the northwest. Use the chart above, or the one below, to give it one last try. Try looking in the northwest about 75 to 90 minutes after sunset – or in the northeast before dawn, or about 90 to 75 minutes before sunrise. The comet is now edging out of the evening sky and rising sooner in the morning sky.
The orange-colored star Mirach is the brightest object in the neighborhood of the Andromeda galaxy and Comet PANSTARRS. (See the sky charts above and zoomed-in 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 below) lies 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. 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 90 minutes after sunset. Be sure to find a level and unobstructed northwest horizon!
You can also see PANSTARRS near the Andromeda Galaxy before dawn now. The comet is now located very far north on the sky’s dome. If you live at mid-northern latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, the comet is up both after sunset and before dawn. Even farther north – like in Alaska – it’s out all night long. After sunset, it’s in the northwest. Before dawn, it’s in the northeast. Happy hunting!
Bottom line: Comet PANSTARRS has moved in front of a darker sky background and might be easier to see now. The charts in this post should help you find it, both after sunset and before dawn.