Where to Find Comet PanSTARRS
Swinging northward now, Comet PanSTARRS emerges above the western sunset horizon this week for skywatchers in the world's mid-northern latitudes. Look due west about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Bring binoculars; the comet is about magnitude +1.5 but is low in the twilight: a fuzzy star with a short upward tail. It's passing its closest to the Sun (on March 10th) and is also barely past its closest to Earth (on March 5th). On March 12th through 14th, the crescent Moon will help point the way, as told below.
If you live north of about latitude 35° N, the comet will climb a little higher into better view from about March 12th to 18th even as it fades. See our continuing updates at SkyandTelescope.com/panstarrs.
Friday, March 8
Saturday, March 9
And, you may know that if you follow the curve of the Dipper's handle out and around by a little more than a Dipper length, you'll arc to Arcturus, now rising in the east.
But did you know that if you follow the Pointers backward the opposite way, you'll land in Leo?
Draw a line diagonally across the Dipper's bowl from where the handle is attached, continue far on, and you'll go to Gemini.
And look at the two stars forming the open top of the Dipper's bowl. Follow this line past the bowl's lip far across the sky, and you crash into Capella.
Sunday, March 10
Monday, March 11
Using binoculars, look below Sirius by almost a binocular field-of-view for a dimly glowing patch among the stars. This is the open star cluster M41, 2,200 light-years away.
Tuesday, March 12
And think photo opportunity! Use a long or zoomed-out lens, and put your camera on a tripod because with a long lens in twilight, exposures won't be short. Experiment with a variety of exposures.
Wednesday, March 13
Thursday, March 14
Friday, March 15
Saturday, March 16
Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential guide to astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the little Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use sky charts with a telescope effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders collection (which includes its own charts), Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the bigger Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the beloved if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and certainly not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically (able to point with better than 0.2° repeatability). As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their invaluable Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury, Venus, and Mars are hidden in the glare of the Sun.
Jupiter (bright at magnitude –2.3, in Taurus) comes into view high in the southwest after sunset and dominates the southwest to west later in the evening. Left of Jupiter is orange Aldebaran. Farther to Jupiter's lower right are the Pleiades. They all set in the west-northwest around the middle of the night.
In a telescope, Jupiter is shrinking as Earth pulls farther ahead of it in our faster orbit around the Sun. This week it shrinks from 38 to 37 arcseconds wide.
Saturn (magnitude +0.4, in Libra) rises in the east-southeast in late evening now. Watch for it to rise well to the lower left of Spica and farther to the lower right of brighter Arcturus. Saturn shines highest in the south in the early morning hours — more or less between Spica to its right and Antares farther to its lower left.
Uranus and Neptune are lost in the glare of the Sun.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Standard Time (EST) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) is UT minus 4 hours.
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