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Comet PanSTARRS

It’s been a while since we had a good comet. Long enough that children in North America probably haven’t seen one, and you might have forgotten just how amazing they can be.

Comets Are Awesome

Comet Huyakutake spanned 100 degrees in the sky. [1]

Comet Huyakutake spanned 100 degrees in the sky.

I know you don’t believe me, but comets can be spectacular objects to view without any magnification at all. No binoculars, no telescope, no squinting. This one might take a little magnification though, we’ll see. Comets are also unpredictable.

In 1996 Comet Huyakutake [2]‘s tail spanned 100 degrees across the sky. Hold your arms at right angles to each other, then lift them up over your head, still at right angles. That’s 90 degrees. Look from one hand to the other- the tail was longer than the distance between your two hands (approximately). Now, Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) will probably not be like Huyakutake. All the evidence recently points to it being a bit of a dud, but it could still surprise us.

Comet Hale-Bopp (in 1997), which you likely remember had two tails, and under the best conditions that tail was about 10 degrees long. Hold your fist at arm’s length [3], and from knuckle to knuckle is about 10 degrees. The Moon is half a degree.

As of February 9th, PanSTARRS had a 2 degree gas and ion tail, visible in long-exposure photography from the Southern Hemisphere.

Can I See PanSTARRS?

This is what you all want to know, right? According to Sky and Telescope it is on track to being visible here in the northern hemisphere.

What Will It Look Like?

I found this image, and I like the context. This is more that you would see with your eyes. This is PanSTARRS on February 11 by Luis Argerich in Argentina (and a satellite on the right) [5].

Comet PanSTARRS is the smear on the left. The dotted line on the right is an Iridium satellite. [5]

Comet PanSTARRS is the double-tailed smear on the left. The dotted line on the right is an Iridium satellite in this 10-second exposure.

  [6]

Want More?

Sky and Telescope [7]–great updated viewing information.

Weekly Info on Bright Comets [8]

NASA’s story [9]

~ A l i c e !