“We saw something. We’re not sure it was it, but it was definitely something,” local comet enthusiast Will Harris says of Pan-STARRS, a comet that is, throughout March, flying within sight of the northern hemisphere.
“We’ll go back tonight,” says Harris, who headed to Frank S Ortiz Dog Park to see the comet on its peak viewing night—Sunday, March 10. Though the night of best viewing has passed, the comet should nonetheless be visible just above the western horizon, about 40 minutes after sunset, for the next couple of weeks. By April, the brightness will fade, making sightings more difficult, but still possible through binoculars or telescope.
Richard Rand, associate director of the University of New Mexico Department of Physics and Astronomy, says that this may be the first time Pan-STARRS has journeyed into our solar system. It is, he says, a long-period comet, which means it passes by once and then disappears—Pan-STARRS, which has an elliptical orbit around the sun, only journeys close enough for sightings from Earth every 100,000 years—while short-period comets like Halley’s return relatively frequently. Pan-STARRS travels toward our solar system “almost perpendicularly,” Rand says, is about 10 degrees off the horizon, “and gets a little higher every night.”
According to NASA, the comet originated from an icy cloud called Oort, 93 million miles away. When the comet orbits close enough to the sun, it shines brightly, making it viewable to the naked eye in the night sky.
On March 10, Pan-STARRS ventured 28 million miles from the sun’s surface.
This week, both Pan-STARRS and the crescent moon occupy the late evening sky after sunset, making for an extraordinary and beautiful sight. Look for a small bright ball followed by the glow of a fading tail. And if you happen to miss Pan-STARRS this March, comet ISON is expected to pass within 800,000 miles of the sun in late November, making for an even brighter nighttime light show.
At 7 pm on Friday, March 15, the UNM campus observatory, in an event cosponsored by the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, opens its doors to the public for a special glimpse of comet Pan-STARRS and the beautiful night sky.