The first comet of the year visible from the Northern Hemisphere sits low on the western horizon for the next few days.
Comet Pan-STARRS can be seen without a telescope or binoculars, but it’s tough to find and it won’t look like much, so keep those binoculars handy.
“You can barely see the thing,” said Adam Block, noted astrophotographer and manager of the Mount Lemmon Sky Center. “You can see it without binoculars but it will be difficult.”
Block not only saw the comet from the street outside his house on Tucson’s east side, he took the photograph that accompanies this story. In it, the comet’s tail is clearly visible, but the image is enhanced from what you would see with your eyes alone. Block used a 300-mm zoom lens and a 10-second exposure.
Up in Payson, Ariz., astrophotographer Chris Schur managed to find a plateau with no trees on the horizon and took a clear photo through a small telescope with a three-second exposure.
Tuesday, if you can get an unobstructed view of the western horizon, would be a good time to look for it, because you’ll get a little assist from the crescent moon. “It will be situated a fist’s width to the left of the moon,” Schur said.
On Wednesday night, it will be midway between the moon and the horizon, said Block. It doesn’t become visible until 30 to 35 minutes after sunset, said Block. “Then you have only 15 minutes to see it.”
Block said the comet will be at its peak visibility from now until Friday. After that, as moves farther from the sun, it will be in the sky longer but it will be dimmer, he said.
The comet was first detected by the Pan-STARRS wide-field telescope on Haleakala Peak on the island of Maui.
Seeing it is “a challenge,” said Block, but he considers it practice for the arrival this fall of comet ISON. ISON is named for the International Scientific Optical Network, a group of comet-and-asteroid seeking observatories managed by a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
It is expected to develop a long, spectacular tale after it makes a swing by the sun in late November. It should “prove to be a wonderfully bright comet,” said Block.