Eyes to the skies as Comet PANSTARRS becomes visible during March

Luis Argerich from Buenos Aires, Argentina, captured Comet PANSTARRS in the sky above Mercedes, Argentina, on February 11, 2013. The comet shone at magnitude 4.5 to the left of an Iridium flare.

The long wait is nearly over. Northern Hemisphere skygazers haven’t seen a bright comet with a long tail since Comet Hale-Bopp graced the night sky in 1997. But if predictions hold, Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4) should be a nice naked-eye object and look impressive through binoculars after sunset starting in the second week of March.

Naked-eye viewers south of the equator watched the comet brighten nicely during February. In early March, Comet PANSTARRS veers sharply northward and gradually comes into view in the evening sky for observers at mid-northern latitudes.

On March 9 and 10, it passes within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of the Sun and will stand some 7° high in the west 30 minutes after sunset. It also should glow brightest then, perhaps reaching 1st magnitude. A crescent Moon can guide you to the comet March 12 and 13. On the 12th, PANSTARRS stands to the upper left of our satellite; the next evening, the comet lies to the Moon’s lower right.
Image by George Ionas today (February 28, 2013) at Palmerston North, New Zealan.
The projected brightness curve of comet PanSTARRS. Created by the author and based on data from www.aerith.net, JPL/Horizons light curves, & Guy Ottewell’s 2013 Almanac. Image Universe Today
The path of Comet PanSTARRS looking west about an hour after local sunset from 30 degrees north latitude on March 8th-16th.