Comet Passing March 7: When, Where And How To See It

By Pierre Dumont , Mar 05, 2013 06:45 PM EST

Those gazing into the night sky this week could be in for some spectacular views.

Specifically, the comet Panstarrs is currently visible streaking across the sky in the early evening to those in the Southern Hemisphere. Those in the Northern Hemisphere will be able to see the comet starting on Thursday March 7, when it makes its closest pass to the sun.

Panstarrs is officially known as C/2011 L4 and is named after the Hawaiian telescope used to discover it in 2011. It is believed to have originated from the outer area of the solar system and is now passing through the inner area. The comet has been the object of much hype by astronomers. It was thought by many that the comet would brighten considerably as it was melted by the sun and formed a long tail. It now turns out that that hypothesis was correct.

Long-period comets, which have orbital periods between 200 and millions of years, derive from a gigantic cloud of icy rubble that spreads for almost one light-year. It is believed that Panstarrs has an orbital period of about 110,000 years.

The quality of the display that Panstarrs will generate is still in doubt. Most meteor showers are visible in the darkest hours of the night, not at twilight when Panstarrs will appear.

The comet is at its closest point to Earth on March 5 with a distance of just over one astronomical unit or about 100 million miles. For those in the Northern Hemisphere hoping to see the comet beginning March 7, look in the direction of the sun just after it has set. It is recommended to find a cloudless spot far from city lights. The comet will still be visible higher in the sky later in March, growing dimmer as it travels further from the sun.

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