The long wait is nearly over. Northern Hemisphere skygazers haven’t seen a bright comet with a long tail since Comet Hale-Bopp graced the night sky in 1997. But if predictions hold, Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4) should be a nice naked-eye object and look impressive through binoculars after sunset starting in the second week of March.
Naked-eye viewers south of the equator watched the comet brighten nicely during February. In early March, Comet PANSTARRS veers sharply northward and gradually comes into view in the evening sky for observers at mid-northern latitudes. On March 9 and 10, it passes within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of the Sun and will stand some 7° high in the west 30 minutes after sunset. It also should glow brightest then, perhaps reaching 1st magnitude. A crescent Moon can guide you to the comet March 12 and 13. On the 12th, PANSTARRS stands to the upper left of our satellite; the next evening, the comet lies to the Moon’s lower right.
For complete coverage of Comet PANSTARRS, visit www.astronomy.com/panstarrs.
According to Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich of Astronomy magazine, the comet should remain visible for a full hour after the Sun sets. “This pretty much guarantees that you’ll be able to see Comet PANSTARRS from any location with reasonably clear skies and an unobstructed western horizon,” he says. “And if you view from a dark observing site, you still may be able to see the comet’s tail arcing among the stars even after the comet’s head sets.”