Comet set to appear in March sky

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ARENAC COUNTY — A recently discovered comet will be appearing in the sky shortly after sundown in the first part of March, and may be bright enough to see with the naked eye.


Comet PANSTARRS — named after the automated survey telescope system in Hawaii which discovered it — was discovered in June 2011 on its way toward the inner solar system. According to astronomer and Delta College Planetarium Manager Garry Beckstrom, the comet appears to have originated in the Oort Cloud, a region of debris on the outskirts of the solar system.


“Every once in a while something gets knocked out of the Oort cloud, whether from activity in the cloud, or from the solar system nearing something that pushes it out,” Beckstrom said.


The comet is already visible in the southern hemisphere, and should be visible in our area around March 12-18 in the western part of the sky about a half hour after sundown, Beckstrom said. The comet may be viewable a few days before March 12 — around March 8-10 — but he said watchers would need a clear horizon to see it at that point. If the comet develops a tail as it travels closer to the sun, he said it should be visible sticking straight up toward the zenith provided the sky is clear and the viewer has binoculars.


PANSTARRS is predicted to pass very near the crescent moon March 12, making it easier to track down in the sky.


While the comet head itself is predicted to be bright enough to see without binoculars or a telescope, Beckstrom said so far it seems a little less bright than expected.


“Initially it was predicted to be as bright as the brightest stars in the sky,” he said. “Now we’re backtracking a bit. It should be bright, but not nearly that bright.”


He said this is the first known appearance of the comet near Earth, and as a result astronomers have no historical data to work with. In contrast, Halley’s Comet, which swings by the planet every 77 years, has been observed many times, and astronomers have a very good idea of how bright it will be each time.


Beckstrom said the Delta College Planetarium will be incorporating some visual sequences about the comet into its shows while PANSTARRS is near Earth, and if weather and the comet’s brightness cooperate, he said they would likely open up the planetarium’s observation deck free of charge, so people could see the comet using its telescope equipment. Since those decisions will be made with short notice, Beckstrom said people can check their website — http://www.delta.edu/planet — to see if the deck will be open.


Comet PANSTARRS is not the only bright comet expected to be visible this year. Beckstrom said a second comet, known as Comet ISON, will be passing by earth around November and December, and is expected to become brighter than PANSTARRS at its closest approach to the sun.


“It may be a very nice naked-eye object if PANSTARRS fizzles out,” he said.


Prior to these two comets, Beckstrom said the last bright comet to appear in our skies was Hale-Bopp in 1997, adding that with automated surveying equipment constantly scanning the skies for asteroids and comets that near Earth, it is more difficult for people to spot and name them before the machines find them.

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