This photo was taken with a Canon 56D Mk II + 280 mm lens on Tuesday, March 12, 2013. Credit: Dale P. Cruikshank. Be sure to also check out Dr. Cruikshank’s other great photographs, including the Lunar double rainbow and 2012 annular eclipse pictures at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Dr. Cruikshank is one of the premier astronomers and planetary scientists in the Astrophysics Branch at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Far beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, where the sun is a pinprick of light not much brighter than other stars, a vast swarm of icy bodies circles the solar system. Astronomers call it the “Oort Cloud,” and it is the source of some of history’s finest comets.
On Tuesday March 12, the comet known officially as comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), stood almost directly above the western horizon, less than 5 degrees to the left of a very narrow crescent moon. The comet will continue to slowly get higher and shift slowly toward the west-northwest part of the sky during the middle and later part of March, also becoming gradually dimmer as it pulls away from both the sun and the Earth.
Any tail that may be present should appear to be pointed straight up and tipped to the left through mid-March, then for the remainder of the month be tipped a bit more to the right.
PANSTARRS was discovered in June 2011 by astronomers using the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS telescope, in Hawaii.
It may be possible for you to see comet PANSTARRS without a telescope in early March 2013 as it crosses the orbit of Mercury. NASA has produced this video to show you how. This comet has never been so close to the Sun.
Posted by: Soderman/NLSI Staff