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From Panstarr to Ison, this is a great year for viewing comets!
Gaze the heavens: This year, we expect two major comets, Panstarr and Ison, to be visible. Learn when they will appear, and which telescopes will help you see them clearly.
2013 will be an extraordinary year for amateur astronomers, with the onset of two major comets. If predictions are correct, the first Comet, C/2011 L4 (Panstarr), will be the brightest comet in the past six years. Comet Panstarr was discovered by the Richard Wainscoat Institute for Astronomy using the 1.8 meter Pan-Starrs 1Telescope on June 6, 2011.
Comet Panstarr: Already Here!
Comet Panstarr can be viewed through binoculars from early March through mid-April, and possibly with the naked eye around March 5-15, where it could reach magnitude -1.0. Search for the comet in the western sky just after sunset on March 8-10 (Chart 1, above) where it lies around 7 degrees above the horizon.
On March 12 look for the crescent Moon (Chart 2, above); Comet Panstarr's fuzzy nucleus and tail should be visible approximately 4 degrees left of it. You can follow this comet’s northward procession in the sky through mid-April with binoculars and into July with a telescope. On April 3, Comet Panstarr (Chart 3, below) will have a close encounter with our neighboring galaxy, M-31, passing within 2.3 degrees of it and it’s brightness around magnitude 3.0. Panstarr will continue to fade and will be close to Polaris on April 26-27, shining at magnitude 5.5. It will then fade down to magnitude 11 in July.
Comet Ison: An Autumn treat
The second Comet is C/2012 S1 (Ison), discovered on September 21, 2012 by two Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok. They were using an 0.4-meter Statel reflector, located at the Kislovodsk Observatory in Russia. Ison has the potential to be the brightest comet in hundreds of years to visit our solar system. Comet Ison will be viewable with binoculars in the early part of October and could be a naked eye object later that month.
In November Ison will continue to brighten and could reach the brightness of the full Moon around the 28th. On this date the comet will be in the daytime sky and very close to the Sun, by only few degrees. Caution: Care should be taken when viewing the Sun or near to it without the proper protection (solar filter) for your eyes or telescopes! The comet will start its climb northward in early December and should retain a brilliant tail into early January 2014. I will write more about this comet later in the year.
A Comet Primer
Comets are among the most remarkable objects in the nighttime sky. Some travel trillions of miles from their home, the Oort Cloud, which is located far beyond the orbit of Pluto; these are called long-period comets. Long-period comets usually take over 200 years to complete an orbit around the Sun, while others may just leave our solar system entirely. Short-period comets orbit the Sun under 200 years and may be located in the Kuiper belt, beyond the planet Neptune.
Comets are in effect a dirty iceberg; the nucleus is made up of a mass of carbon dioxide, frozen water, ammonia, methane, and other solids like meteor rocks, dust and metals. They were formed at the same time as our solar system and some theorize the water on Earth came from their impacts.
Comet appearances can differ from night to night. Their tails can extend for millions of miles, the coma can grow and shrink, and the nucleus can break apart.
Comets have three major components. They are:
- the Nucleus
- the Coma
- the Dust/Ion Tail.
When the comet approaches the Sun the coma starts to grow due to the nucleus sublimation of ices. Radiation pressure from the sun pushes dust particles and gases away from the coma, forming dust and ion tails. Charged particles from the sun convert some of the comet's gases into ions this cause them to glow in colors of green, yellow and blue. Comet tails are shaped by the solar wind and always point away from the sun.
The Best Ways To Look at Comets
When are close to the earth, Comets are very large objects and are best viewed with binoculars because of their wider field of view. Examples are: the Fujinon 7x50 FMT-SX, Nikon 10x50 Action VII, and the Celestron 15x70 Skymaster.
When viewing the comet’s structure, higher magnification is required. A telescope like the following is recommended: a TeleVue TV-85, the Celestron Sky Prodigy 130mm or the Meade Star Navigator 102mm. Depending on conditions described above, you can photograph comets simply by using a tripod-mounted DSLR camera, with any lens from 50mm through 100mm. When using 120mm or longer lenses, you must offset the Earth’s rotation by using a telescope mount with a RA drive or one of these camera platforms: the Vixen Polarie, the AstroTrac or the iOptron Sky Tracker.
Good luck and enjoy viewing or imaging these celestial wonders.