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How to spot comet PanSTARRS without a telescope

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Comet PanSTARRS is just days away from making its debut in the northern hemisphere. The first of two much-anticipated naked-eye comets visible in the northern hemisphere, will be difficult to spot at first, but will become easier to enjoy in the days following its arrival. Here's what you want to know.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - PanSTARRS has been putting on a show for observers in the Southern Hemisphere, still a bit faint, but visible. Binocular observations reveal the comet has developed a fan-shaped tail as it approaches the sun.

Within a few days, the comet will become visible to experienced stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere, with the first sightings expected on the evening of March 7. Despite edging above the horizon on the 7th, the comet will not be easy to spot.

Viewers will probably need optical aid, but will have to wait for the sun to set, for safety reasons. Viewing the sun through binoculars or a telescope will cause immediate and permanent blindness.

After the sun sets on march 7, PanSTARRS will be visible low to the horizon for about 45 minutes or so. It will rise higher each subsequent night, and will become easier to spot. On the night of March 12, it will appear quite close to the crescent moon, making it relatively easy to spot. Most people will see it at that time.

The comet will be of only moderate brightness, meaning it should be about as bright as a star in the Big Dipper or in Orion's Belt. It should appear slightly fuzzy to the naked eye and binoculars should help you to see its tail. If you are in a dark-sky spot with a telescope, viewing the comet with a wide-angle lens should provide an exceptional view.

The comet will move high into the northern sky throughout March and into April. By April it will be speeding back out into the depth of space and should fade rapidly. It will require a telescope for spotting by mid-April.

Comet PanSTARRS will not return within our lifetime. Scientists have calculated that its orbit is so large that it will take 110,000 years before it returns to the inner solar system again.

Meanwhile, all eyes will turn towards Comet ISON, which is expected to grace our skies in November. Comet ISON is expected to be fairly bright, and may even be visible during the day.

To spot PanSTARRS, beginning on March 7, look to the west right after sunset. If you do not see the comet right away, do not dismay. It will become easier to see on subsequent nights. Remember that you must not view the sun using binoculars or other optical aid. The naked eye should be enough to see the comet.

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