A Comet For March: Comet Pan-STARRS

Observers in the Northern Hemisphere don’t have to wait until the appearance of Comet ISON in November to spy a comet.  In early March, Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) should become visible to the naked eye low in the Western sky at dusk.

How Bright Will it Be?

Discovered in 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope, C/2001 L4 Pan-STARRS is currently visible to astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere and is quickly moving Northward. As of mid-February, the comet was reported to be brighter than magnitude +5, which put it at the edge of naked-eye visibility.

While early predictions had estimated that the comet could shine as bright as magnitude 0 in March, it’s now estimated that Comet Pan-STARRS will likely peak around magnitude +3.  While that’s dimmer than hoped, comets are notoriously unpredictable. Pan-STARRS could exceed these predictions if it suddenly releases more icy material than expected, or fail to brighten as planned. The only way to know is to look!

NASACometPan-STARRS

The best chance to catch Comet Pan-STARRS may come on March 12th when it will be found close to a thin crescent Moon. This pairing should make it easier to locate the comet and could present a nice photo opportunity! 

To ensure that you don’t miss it at its best, be sure to find an observing area with an unobstructed view to the West and scan the horizon shortly after sunset each night between March 8th and 20th. After the 20th, the brightness of the Moon and the comet’s fading magnitude may drop the comet from naked-eye visibility. 

Will it Be Visible for Long?

While Pan-STARRS will climb higher in the sky throughout March, April, and May, it is expected to become dimmer each night after its closest solar approach in early March. In April and May, Comet Pan-STARRS will likely only be visible through telescopes or binoculars, so cross your fingers for clear skies in early to mid-March! 

To stay up-to-date on the comet’s performance and to see images as they roll in, be sure to follow Awesome Astronomy here. 

If you capture any images of Comet Pan-STARRS, tweet them to Awesome Astronomy and we'll put them up on the website.