In February of 2013, the world watched as a meteorite blazed over Central Russia, shocking citizens and shattering glass with its immense sonic boom. The unanticipated meteorite almost overshadowed Asteroid 2012 DA14 which passed by in close proximity to our little planet that very same day. These were two completely unrelated and rare events and them both occurring on February 15th was astronomically coincidental!
Surprisingly, March doesn’t look like it’s going to pale by comparison, in terms of exciting heavenly happenings. Quite the opposite, March is upon us with an impressive celestial agenda. For the majority of this month, sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can look up and observe comet Pan-STARRS in its flashy splendor.
Pan-STARRS, or Comet C/2011 L4, was discovered in June of 2011, just outside of Jupiter’s orbit. This long tailed baby comet was flung from its origin in the Oort Cloud (a massive cloud of icy planetary debris) and can be expected to gradually get brighter as it approaches the sun. Despite being millions of years old it is still categorized as a “baby comet” and gets its name from the team that discovered it: PANSTARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) based in Hawaii.
Have your fingers crossed for some clear weather in the next few days, because PANSTARRS is said to be visible without any visionary aid (although a telescope or binoculars would be ideal). NASA says: “To see the comet, look low on the western horizon just after the sun has gone down. Comet Pan-STARRS can appear as a bright head with a wispy trail, weather permitting, though some stargazers have said the bright evening twilight can make spotting it tricky.”
This comet was rumored to have been its brightest on the 10th of March, so if you haven’t caught a glimpse of it in the Western sky yet, you should grab your binoculars and do so soon. The closer April gets the dimmer Pan-STARRS will become.
Unlike “The Terminator” Pan-STARRS won’t be back anytime soon. Pan-STARRS’ elliptical orbit around the sun causes it to only be near us approximately every 100 million years.
So, good luck and keep your eyes peeled, stargazers. From March 14th on, the comet will be visible at a low point in the Western twilight sky. If you have a knack for spotting constellations Pan-STARRS will be near Andromeda or Pegasus. However, if you’re like me and can only find the Big Dipper in the night sky; do not fret! Simply direct your eyes towards the crescent moon, and Pan-STARRS shouldn’t be too far off.