Come enjoy the Academy for free this Sunday, December 11.
by Bing Quock
Discovered in June 2011, Comet C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS (yeah, quite a mouthful) is one of two comets that astronomershope will flare to spectacular brightness this year, becoming easily visible to the naked eye. While the December appearance of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON is still too far away to predict its brightness accurately, Comet Pan-STARRS has been putting on a good show for Southern Hemisphere observers for the past few weeks, swinging up through the plane of the solar system from below.
Now past perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun), the cometcontinues to drift northward, and Northern Hemisphere observers can now take a gander. However, it isn’t quite as bright as astronomers originally hoped it would be. While photos taken from Southern Hemisphere locations have been quite striking, the comet is now starting to fade as it retreats from the Sun, gradually climbing out of the evening twilight for northern viewers.
Skywatchers will need binoculars to see it low in the west about 30-45 minutes after sunset, after the twilight glow has dimmedenough to not wash it from view, but before the comet sets. Still, any comet that can be seen at all is a beautiful, ethereal sight, and Pan-STARRS has been noted for its bright head anddelicate, fan-shaped tail.
The next few nights offer the waxing Moon as a reference to help locate the comet. On the evening of Tuesday the 12th, look for it just to the left of the razor-thin, day-old crescent, and on Wednesday the 13th, with the Moon slightly higher in the sky, the comet will lie below it.
Where did that mouthful of a name come from, anyway? Following the tradition of naming comets after their discoverers,Comet Pan-STARRS got its moniker from the telescope array used to discover it, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii.