Look for Comet Panstarrs this week — but look hard

The cosmos whets our sky-gazing appetite when Comet Panstarrs rises into view this week — albeit extremely low on the western horizon in the evening.

Quite literally, it barely peeks above the western horizon just after sunset any day from March 6 through 8, where it could be a second magnitude object — a little hard to see from the urban and suburban areas near Washington.

It’s so low, you’ll need a superb view of the horizon — perhaps a scenic rest stop along Virginia’s Skyline Drive, says Fred Espenak, scientist emeritus from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. (Check out his blog, Portal to the Universe, at www.astropixels.
A building on an upper floor with a western horizon view might work, too.

Comets are named for their discoverers. The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii found this comet in June 2011. Thus, considering the program’s acronym, we get Comet Panstarrs. In its first visit here, this comet makes its closest approach to Earth on March 5, at about 100 million miles away, Espenak says. It reaches perihelion — the closest approach to the sun — March 10.

As the month continues, astronomers predict that Comet Panstarrs will be slightly dimmer, but higher in the sky. Espenak suggests that the best opportunity to spot it may be March 10-15. It will look like a fuzzy cotton ball against the dark, early-evening heavens in the western sky.

Between March 9 and 18, the comet’s tail — if it sports a large tail — is expected to swing from south to north. The comet will also have moved to the west-northwestern sky in the latter half of the month. Still, find it after dusk.

Another solar system intruder, Comet ISON, arrives this November, and it is predicted to be higher in the sky and very bright.

As night falls, find Jupiter in the western sky still loitering near the Hyades and Pleiades. The large, gaseous planet hangs at -2.2 magnitude, bright enough to see from the Mall. A spirited young moon approaches the planet on the nights of March 15-16. The moon slides under Jupiter on March 17.

The ringed Saturn rises in the east about 11 p.m. now, and it is visible around zero magnitude — bright enough to see from urban skies. It passes due south about 4 a.m. By late March, find it rising around 10 p.m.

You’ll lose a little sleep, since it’s time to set the clocks ahead and spring forward next Sunday, when we return to daylight saving time at 2 a.m.

As Earth orbits the sun, it’s time to mark a seasonal start. Celebrate the official astronomical start to spring as the Vernal Equinox occurs March 20 at 7:02 a.m. EDT, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Down-to-Earth events:

●March 5 — Astronomer Brett Morris talks about exoplanets — those planets not within our solar system — at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Sky viewing through telescopes afterward. 8 p.m. www.astro.

●March 9 — See and learn all about the Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, at Super Science Saturday. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Parking $15. airandspace.si.edu.

●March 9 — Paul Ray of the Naval Research Laboratory talks about X-ray pulsars at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.

●March 10 — Andrea Jones of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center discusses Mars exploration at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.

●March 10 — “From the Dark Ages to the Era of the First Stars,” a lecture by astronomer Kari Helgason at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Sky viewing afterward. 8 p.m. www.astro.

●March 20 — “The Vernal Equinox: First Day of Spring,” at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet/.

●March 21 — “GPS for Humanity — The Stealth Utility,” a lecture by Bradford Parkinson, professor emeritus at Stanford University, former chief architect and the original program director for the Global Positioning System. Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 8 p.m. Tickets and information, airandspace.si.edu.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at PostSkyWatch@gmail.com .



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