The first of two comets that will cruise into view in the Northern Hemisphere in 2013 has begun its show for Midlanders.
Comet Pan-STARRS, which has already been on display in the Southern Hemisphere, can now be spotted by northern skywatchers, with a little effort.
It's not as bright as experts had hoped, said David Kriegler of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's physics department, but its brightness is comparable to the stars in the Big Dipper.
Comet fans are urged to look west just after sunset about one fist width above the horizon, said Kriegler. A small telescope will work for viewing, he said, but a good pair of binoculars may be best. And the binoculars will only work well, Kriegler added, if the air is clear.
“Here is the problem with Pan-STARRS,'' he said. “A half-hour after sunset, looking for a fuzzy comet in the twilight at only 10 degrees above the horizon in the hazy, atmospheric murk will be a challenge for the uninitiated.
“And as the comet gets farther from the sun as March progresses, its brightness will fade,'' said Kriegler, who is director of UNO's Mallory Kountze Planetarium.
So, the best window for viewing will be roughly this weekend through about March 20, he added, but the comet will remain difficult to pick up “no matter what.''
Pan-STARRS is now at its closest to the sun — about 28 million miles. Comets are bright and active when closest to the sun because solar heating vaporizes ice and dust from the comet's outer crust. Comets also develop the long, classic dust tail when close to the sun.
The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii discovered the comet in June 2011. And since comets carry their discoverers' names, it was designated Pan-STARRS for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. The volcano-top telescope is on constant prowl for dangerous asteroids and comets that might be headed our way.
Thought to be billions of years old, the comet originated in the distant Oort cloud — a cloud of icy bodies well beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto – and somehow became propelled toward the inner solar system. It's never passed by Earth before.
If Midlands stargazers fail to pick up Pan-STARRS, they should get another shot at a comet later this year. By the end of 2013, possibly the best and the brightest of the year's two comets, ISON, should come into view.
“If we go by their (experts') predictions,'' Kriegler said, “it will get less than 1 million miles from the sun, and if it survives that, it may exceed the full moon in brightness.''
ISON was discovered last September by Russian astronomers and earned its acronym name from the International Scientific Optical Network.
Neither Pan-STARRS nor ISON pose a threat to Earth, according to scientists.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.