Tuesday, just after 7 p.m., look west, near the thumbnail sliver of a brand-new crescent moon.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the comet PanSTARRS — a point of light trailing a long, diffuse tail.
“It’s going to be very low in the western sky,” says Christopher Palma, a senior lecturer in astronomy at Penn State.
“Every year, you can find comets if you know what you’re doing with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope,” Palma said. “But for a comet to actually be bright enough that you can see it with no equipment whatsoever is rare.”
That could make 2013 triply rare — which is why many space buffs are calling it “the year of the comet.”
There’s PanSTARRS this week.
Lemmon, a dimmer comet, is expected in the Northern Hemisphere next month.
And then there’s the showstopper: the comet ISON.
Some say ISON could be the brightest comet ever. It’s expected to grace the evening sky in late November.
The brightness of comets is hard to forecast. Still, PanSTARRS — named after the Hawaiian telescope that first spotted it only a year-and-a-half ago — is likely to deliver.
Penn State’s Palma says it could rival the big name comets, Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, that streaked across the sky in the late 1990s.
“I think a lot of us are a little bit spoiled,” Palma said. “But yes, this is going to be another one that you can see without a pair of binoculars or without a telescope. So that definitely ranks it up there as one of the more famous comets that people will still talk about years from now.”
Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, says to bring the binoculars.
He says Tuesday is your best shot, but PanSTARRS should also be visible later in the week.
“Day by day, we’ll see it progress along the western horizon, from your left to you right, moving to the north,” said Pitts. “Everyday it will move a little bit further along.”
The pros recommend viewing PanSTARRS from a spot with an unobstructed view of the western horizon. If you’re dying to catch a glimpse, start looking shortly after sundown at 7:05 p.m.
Sky & Telescope magazine is posting worthwhile updates.
And if you want to hear more about PanSTARRS and other space phenomena, give this week’s SkyTalk a listen: