by Michael Wright
Comet PANSTARRS (a.k.a C/2011 L4) has been eagerly followed since astronomers predicted last year that it might reach mag. -1. Unfortunately, the comet has not performed as expected, and it is now predicted to only reach mag. +2 when it is visible in the northern hemisphere next week. Sky and Telescope magazine is reporting that southern hemisphere observers reported observing it at mag. 2.7 on February 28 and March 1.The optimum time to observe the comet will be approximately 45 minutes after sunset on a clear evening between March 12 and 20. The chart to the right generated using the SkySafari+ iPad app shows the position of PANSTARRS on March 12 at 7:30 p.m. The comet will be slightly higher each evening after March 12, but it will never be more than 10 degrees above the western horizon. Finding an observing site with an unobstructed view of the western horizon will be important to getting a clear view. An elevated site like a hilltop would be even better. The “Starry Hill” location of the Sourland Star Party mentioned above just might be the ticket. The sky will not be as dark as shown on the chart so binoculars will be helpful to find the coma and tail against the bright twilight sky. Sky and Telescope and other online sources have updates and finder charts to help amateurs locate the comet in the sky. Happy hunting!