First of two comets to be visible without help this year to appear tomorrow

11 Mar 2013

Comet PANSTARRS zooms over Mount Dale, Western Australia. Photo via Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory/NASA

Two comets are expected to be visible to the naked eye this year in a rare celestial event, with the first one, 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), set to dazzle stargazers in the northern hemisphere tomorrow.

The ability to view a comet without the aid of binoculars or a telescope occurs about once every five to 10 years, US space agency NASA said.

What’s extra special about PANSTARRS is that it is normally seen from the southern hemisphere, and tomorrow (12 March) skywatchers in the opposite hemisphere will get a chance to glimpse the comet, if conditions are right.

The second comet, ISON, is expected to be visible with the naked eye in the fall.

PANSTARRS will appear as a bright point of light with its diffuse tail pointing nearly straight up from the horizon, like an exclamation point, NASA said. It will begin to fade away as the month wears on, becoming difficult to view (even with binoculars or small telescopes) by month’s end.

In order to see PANSTARRS, which is to safely pass by Earth, certain conditions have to be right. Because the comet is not that bright and will be low on the western horizon, viewers will need clear weather, just after twilight, and a relatively unobstructed view, said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NASA’s NEOWISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Comet PANSTARRS may be a little bit of a challenge to find without a pair of binoculars, but there is something intimately satisfying to see it with your own two eyes,” said Mainzer.

“If you have a good viewing spot and good weather, it will be like the Sword of Gryffindor, it should present itself to anyone who is worthy.”

Comet PANSTAARS visiblity

Comet PANSTARRS’ expected positions in the sky this month. Image via NASA

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic