As of March 8, at midnorthern latitudes including Central Oregon, astronomers and stargazers are being treated to the Comet PanSTARRS. This is likely the best time for sky observers here in Oregon to see a comet.
It was discovered almost two years ago by the PanSTARRS automated sky survey project in Hawaii when it was a very faint 19 magnitude. At the time, it was between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. On March 5, PanSTARRS was about 1.1 astronomical units (AU) from Earth (an AU is about 93 million miles or the average distance to the sun from Earth). The comet reached perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, March 10.
We should be able to see Comet PanSTARRS with a pair of binoculars until May 31 and possibly longer. Every night just after sunset, Comet PanSTARRS will get dimmer and travel north along the western horizon moving higher in the northern sky in April and May. It will be just east of Polaris, the North Star, on May 27.
Another comet will grace our night sky later this year. Excitement continues to rise among both professional and amateur astronomers about Comet ISON, which on Nov. 28 might become one of the brightest comets ever seen, outshining such recent dazzlers as Comet Hale-Bopp (1997) and Comet McNaught (2007). I’ll write more about this comet in November. So blow the dust off your binoculars and start looking upward. We’re in for exciting celestial delights in 2013.
— Bill Logan is an expert solar observer and a volunteer amateur astronomer with University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory. He lives in Bend. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org .