Friday, March 15, 2013

How to See Comet PANSTARRS Tonight (Maps, Photos)

Well, I finally did it: got to see Comet PANSTARRS as the sky finally cleared at dusk for the first time since the comet entered the Northern sky (lovely Northeast Ohio weather!). So, having seen the comet for myself (with some difficulty), I thought it would be best to pass on some viewing tips to the world to aid others' comet hunts.

My biggest surprise with Comet PANSTARRS was just how difficult it was to spot in the first place. While it is being reported as shining around 0 magnitude, it is still very difficult to see thanks to its proximity to the Sun. In looking for the comet, I used my Starry Night Pro software to help. Problem: Starry Night shows the comet as popping into visibility too early, way too early.

At my location, the Sun sets about 7:30pm and Starry Night showed the comet popping into naked eye visibility around 8pm, 30 minutes after sunset. In reality, though, I couldn't see the comet until about 8:15, or about 45 minutes after sunset. Which brings me to tip #1: don't head out until about 45 minutes after sunset.

As for seeing the comet itself, it was made more difficult by a cloudy, hazy horizon (see above picture), so much so that, at about quarter past eight, I was about to just give up and head in after having fruitlessly scanned the sky with 10x50 binoculars in the freezing cold for over15 minutes. Before heading in, I decided to fire off one last picture, 2 second shutter speed, hoping that the camera would show up on camera, which it did. Therefore we have tip #2: use a camera to find the comet if you can't pick it up visually with binoculars.

Once found on camera, I went right back to that patch of sky with the binoculars and, as if by magic, the comet was there.

Once I had the comet spotted visually, it was getting closer to 8:30, which meant that the comet was scarcely 5 degrees above the horizon. Unfortunately, with the haze, houses, and killjoy lights, I didn't have much time to savor the view, let alone get off a good picture with a fixed telescope (no time to get all the cords), which brings me to my third and final tip #3: scout out a good Western horizon free of lighting.

So, hopefully, these tips will serve to help anyone who has yet to see the comet. As for a visual representation, use the pictures below to serve as a guide. All are  set for 8:30pm at 41 degree North. A final observation: Starry Night has PANSTARRS dropping a magnitude and a half next week, which will make spotting it all the tougher.

Okay, I lied: tip #4: make it a point to see the comet as soon as possible!

 March 15

 March 17

 March 19

 March 21

March 23

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