There are not one, but two comets coming this year that could very well end up making 2013 remembered as the “Year of the Comet”. The first comet has actually been visible in the southern hemisphere during the past several weeks and it will become visible to the naked eye in the northern hemisphere early next week. The second comet called ISON comes late in the year (November/December) and that one promises to be one of the best of all-time according to some experts.
The first comet is officially known as Comet C/2011 L4 and it was discovered by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System known as PAN-STARRS. As a result, the comet has taken on the name “Comet PAN-STARRS”. This will be the comet’s first visit as it has never been pulled in by the sun’s gravity so some surprises are possible. Comet PAN-STAARS made its closest approach to Earth on Tuesday (March 5th) when it passed by at a range of about 102 million miles. It’ll make its closest approach to the sun on Sunday, March 10th, at about 28 million miles from the sun – a bit closer than the planet Mercury. The comet will still be low in the western sky on Sunday and likely be lost in the sun’s glare even as the nucleus vaporizes and brightens. While the comet might be viewable by Monday evening, some experts have pinpointed to next Tuesday and Wednesday (3/12, 3/13) as two of the best dates for viewing the new comet in the northern hemisphere as it emerges in the western sunset sky. On those evenings, the thin crescent moon will be close to the comet in the western sky. PAN-STAARS will continue to be a bright object in the evening sky for the rest of March and during the first half of April.
In summary, to see the comet beginning early next week, look for it in the western sky shortly after sunset just to the left of the point on the horizon where the sun sets. It should be visible with the naked eye, but even better with binoculars or small telescopes. Let’s hope for clear skies and turn the clocks ahead this weekend.