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Searching for Comet Pan-STARRS

Scan the west after sunset

After last month’s near-passing asteroid and the exploding meteorite over Siberia, we have another interloper passing through: Comet Pan-STARRS. Given clear skies and an unobstructed view of the west horizon at dusk, you can spot this comet over the coming week.
    Sunday, March 10 marks its closest approach to the sun and thus its brightest appearance. But the comet doesn’t reach its highest point in our skies until March 20, when you may be able to spot it as late as an hour after sunset. You’re likely to need binoculars to pick Pan-STARRS from amid the glare of the setting sun, and your window of opportunity is narrow. Look to the west immediately after sunset, scanning just above the horizon for a star-like light. At best the comet is expected to shine around first magnitude, brighter than all but the strongest stars. Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the thin, new crescent moon hovers just a few degrees below the comet.
    The comet has been visible in the Southern Hemisphere for several months, now. Viewers report a bright nucleus but note that the tail is rather short and stubby, extending just a few degrees and pointing straight up.
    Pan-STARRS, like other comets, is named for its discoverers — in this case a group of astronomers using the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System — Pan-STARRS — in Hawaii. They first spotted it in June of 2011. Astronomers have traced Pan-STARRS to the Oort Cloud, an area dense with comets at the outer edge of our solar system and dating to its creation.
    Don’t worry about Pan-STARRS hitting the earth: it made its closest pass March 5. Roughly 100 million miles away, it was farther from us than the moon, Venus, Mercury or even the sun.
    You should worry about setting your clocks ahead an hour, however, before bed Sunday, as Daylight Saving Time begins.