It won’t have the zip of a meteor shower, but a comet is making its closest pass ever to the sun and will be visible low on South Florida’s western horizon.
“If you have 20-20 vision, it could be bright enough to see it,” Steve Schiff, president of the Astronomical Society of the Palm Beaches, said Wednesday. “Maybe it will have a tail. Maybe it won’t.”
“It” is comet C/2011 L4, called PANSTARRS. According to NASA, it was discovered in June 2011 by astronomers using Hawaii’s Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, telescope.
It comes from the source of many comets: a swarm of icy bodies at the edge of the solar system called the “Oort Cloud.”
PANSTARRS will be most visible through Tuesday, left of a very narrow crescent moon. Any tail that might be present should appear to be pointed straight up and tipped to the left through mid-March, then for the remainder of the month tipped a bit more to the right.
The comet will slowly get higher and shift slowly toward the west-northwest part of the sky during the middle and later part of March, also becoming gradually dimmer as it pulls away from both the sun and the Earth, NASA said.
Unlike meteors racing through earth’s atmosphere, comets, while moving much faster, appear to be almost stationary, since they’re so far out, Schiff said.
As with anything in the heavens, PANSTARRS will compete with any clouds along with the setting sun and city lights.
“From here in Palm Beach (County) there’s so much light pollution it’s hard to see any of this,” said ThomKelley, education manager at the Schoolhouse Children’s Museum and Learning Center, who often does star-viewing events at the museum.
He did advise that, rather than spending hundreds or thousands on a telescope, to instead “get a pair of great planetary or astronomy binoculars. You’ll pay a third of the price and get just as much.”
Schiff, meanwhile, said his astronomical society has a “star party” set for the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, March 15, but for Sunday, the prime viewing night for PANSTARRS, the association will be at a small settlement about 35 miles west of Lake Okeechobee, named, appropriately enough, Venus.
Between last month’s dramatic meteor event in Russia and comet passes such as this one, interest in the heavens is again heightened. But, Schiff bemoaned, always briefly. After that, he said, “they keep their eyes back on the ground.”
On the web: http://lunarscience.nasa.gov/articles/comet-panstarrs-brightening/