Over the next few weeks we have the opportunity to observe a recently discovered comet in the evening sky. Later in the fall we will have another opportunity to observe another comet. Considering this opportunity only comes around on average of every 7 years or so, it's pretty cool that we get two this year! One of them may be visible tonight if you have a clear view of the western horizon, if not viewing gets better between March 12 - 24.
2011 L4 PANSTARRS is the comet to watch for over the next few weeks. It was discovered in June of 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System that sits on Mt. Haleakala in Hawaii. It has been recently observable in the southern hemisphere and is now becoming visible in the northern hemisphere.
According to NASA we might be able to observe this comet tonight on March 8th by looking west until about 15 minutes after twilight IF we have a totally unobstructed view of the western horizon.
If you don’t, you can observe PANSTARRS between March 12th – 24th low along the western horizon during and a bit after twilight. You really do want to go to a place where you can get a good view of the western horizon because this comet will not be very high in the sky. Also the window of viewing opportunity is very short and the comet is not very bright. Grab your binoculars if you have trouble finding it with your naked eye. Once you locate it through binoculars, you’ll most likely be able to see it through the twilight because you’ll know exactly where to look.
The reason we can’t observe it on the 9th – 11th is because PANSTARR reaches perihelion (closest distance to the Sun) on March 10th. It is not a very bright comet so it will be lost to the glow of Sun in close proximity. Comet PANSTARR’s perihelion on March 10th is 28 million miles (45 million km) from the Sun, which is a bit closer to the Sun that Mercury at perihelion. Mercury’s perihelion is approximately 28.5 million miles.
For more information on PANSTARRS visit NSAS'As website
If you locate the commet, I'd love to hear about it! Please share your experience below.