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Watch Out for Pan-STARRS: Times, Dates to Best View the Comet this Week

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Mar 05, 2013 03:08 PM EST
Comet PANSTARRS
Comet PANSTARRS sets over the Pacific Ocean. (Photo : Gabriel Brammer/Flickr)

An exciting week for sky gazers is coming our way as not one, but two comets are expected to put on a naked-eye spectacle in the Northern Hemisphere.

Up first is Comet Pan-STARRS, which gets its name from the telescope credited with discovering it in June 2001: the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System in Hawaii. People living south of the equator have already been able to see the comet, which makes its closest approach to Earth on Tuesday. Now it's the Northern Hemisphere's turn as Pan-STARRS will become visible to the naked eye starting on Thursday, when it will appear very low in the horizon just after the sun sets.

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"As long as it continues its behavior for a few days, it looks like the Northern Hemisphere - even us city-dwellers - might get a pretty good view of this thing," Karl Battams of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington told NBC News. He added that the best time to look out for Pan-STARRS would be about half an hour after the sunset.

Battman's also noted a breakdown of what to expect this week from Pan-STARRS and when to look for it:

March 5: Pan-STARRS will be closest to Earth;

March 10: The comet will pass closest to the sun;

March 12 and 13: The best dates to look for Pan-STARRS; it should emerge in the western sunset sky not far from the crescent moon.

It's hard to predict exactly how bright Pan-STARRS will be, but you should be able to see it without binoculars or telescopes. The best photo op days will be on March 12 and 13, when PanSTARRS pairs up with the crescent moon.

Second Comet for the Year

PanSTARRS is the first of two comets expected to light up the sky this year. The second one is Comet ISON, will be visible in November, and experts say it has the potential to be brighter than PanSTARRS. Some even say that it may be just as bright as the full moon.

In preparation for Comet ISON's arrival, Battams and other researchers are helping NASA organize a comet observing campaign. ISON is expected to pass as close to the sun's surface as 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers), which could produce a dramatic brightening of the comet when it goes back out of the inner solar system. "We just want to make sure that all the major observatories are aware of this," Battams said.

"Sungrazing comets are unique objects that experience the most extreme thermal and gravitation forces our solar system has to offer them," the campaign's Web page says. "However, rarely do we get to see these objects more than a few hours before their demise. Comet ISON offers us the rare opportunity to study a sungrazer in great detail, for an extended period, and place it in the context of other comets."

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