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Comets expected to make appearances during 2013

2013 may end up being the year of the comet! There are 3 comets expected to make a splash this year – Comet PanSTARRS, Comet Lemmon and the grand finale, Comet ISON. The first one is already putting on a good show for Southern Hemisphere sky watchers. By the time it makes its appearance in northern skies, Comet PanSTARRS should be visible to the naked eye!
The comet, discovered in 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, isn’t expected to be as much of a spectacle as Comet ISON (scheduled to appear in November) but it is tracking to reach a brightness roughly equivalent to Polaris, the North Star.
This giant ball of ice, gas and stony rubble will make its first visit to the inner solar system and pass closest by the sun on March 10. As it does, the sun’s energy will stream the comet’s material into space, forming a giant tail pointing away from the sun. A “coma” of gas may be seen surrounding the brilliant nucleus.
“This comet definitely is a dynamically new comet, so we do have the wild-card factor in there,” Karl Battams of the Naval Research Laboratory told NBC News in an email. “In an ordinary year, this comet would be grabbing the headlines, but most people are so worked up over ISON that this one is getting short-changed a little.
It should be a good one though. … For us urban dwellers, we might need to dust off the binoculars to get a decent look.” Battams and other astronomers say PanSTARRS is a special case because it’s apparently coming in from the Oort Cloud on the solar system’s edge to make its first swing through the inner solar system.
PanSTARRS should start showing up in the Northern Hemisphere around March 7. The comet will begin gaining altitude, passing less than one degree from the star Iota Ceti on March 8th. Keep in mind, Daylight Saving Time begins for a majority of U.S. residents on March 10th, so while we will be looking for the comet around 7 p.m., local on the first week of March, it will be at 8 p.m. on the second week.
The desired conditions to view this and other comets are similar to those for meteor showers. It’s best to pick a dark spot, away from various forms of light pollution. You will want to look in the direction of the sunset just after the sun has gone down. The comet will be just above the horizon.
It might be tricky to spot the comet because of the glare of the twilight sky, and it could be even trickier after March 12, when the light of the moon will start interfering. Although the nucleus of the comet will be as bright as the brightest star in the night sky, the evening twilight is also bright, and the tail may be difficult to view without the aid of binoculars.
The best predicted time for comet-viewing, picture-taking parties is March 12 or 13 because PanSTARRS should be visible alongside a pretty crescent moon in western skies. The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy said “by the end of March, the comet will no longer be visible in the evening sky, but if you get up early, you may be able to see it in the eastern sky just before sunrise. However, by then the comet will be farther from both the sun and Earth, and will therefore be fainter.”
An interesting note; this may be the first really bright northern hemisphere comet we have had since the advent of DSLR astrophotography. Back in the 1990s most of us were shooting comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake with film cameras. We can expect some stunning pictures if this comet performs up to expectations!
Comet Lemmon won’t be visible for northern hemisphere residents until April.
Comet ISON is predicted to reach naked-eye visibility in the constellation Leo beginning in October. If Comet ISON survives, it will become the comet of the century throughout the month of December 2013, visible in both the evening and morning sky and possibly in daylight as it may rival even the full moon in brightness.
Unlike the February close encounters by asteroids, neither comet comes close to posing a threat to Earth. You can follow ISON’s progress in detail at http://earthsky.org.
Photo taken by Ignacio Diaz Bobillo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, reproduced with photographer permission. You can view more of his astrophotography online at www.pampaskies.com/gallery3/.
[The information used in this article was collected from various sources, including Universe Today, The Cosmic Blog at NBC, Earthsky.org, The Daily Astorian, and Astronomy Magazine.]