Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

How to find a comet

Posted on February 19 2013 at 10:46:17 0 comments

Panstarrs positions

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

March last year was possibly the best month for observing since I started making things up about the sky.

This year (to save me from tears) I’ll just say that you’ll need to be out looking at the western horizon every evening from about the 7th.

“Why?” I hear you cry. Well, this is probably the best time to see a decent comet for a long time. It is called Comet C/2011 L4 (Panstarrs), or just Panstarrs for short.
Predictions on its brightness have ranged from wildly optimistic to gloomily pessimistic.

As I’m the sort of chap for whom the glass is always half full, I’m hoping that it will, possibly, be just about bright enough to see, maybe with binoculars – is that definite enough for everyone?

Now, viewing through binoculars can be tricky enough in daylight – at night, it becomes another universe (not literally of course)!

Why not try persuading Grandad to get out his old army issue ones or bribing someone you know (I have some excellent 10x50s) and have a peer round the sky to get used to the way it looks.

Probably the first thing you’ll see is… absolutely nothing. To start with, practise “aiming” by choosing a bright star, low in the sky. Fortunately, we have the perfect one in our skies at the moment. Sirius is due south, easy to find and very obvious being the brightest star in the sky.

Stare at it and bring the binoculars up to your eyes and… oh well, have another go. You should soon get the hang of things. Higher and to the right of Sirius is Orion and the stars of his belt make an excellent target.

Higher still in Orion is Betelgeuse at the top left, a good demonstration of how difficult binoculars become at high angles. Try leaning against a wall to steady yourself (something I’ve been practising for years).

Higher still and to the right of Orion is the planet Jupiter, the brightest object at the moment. With the right size lenses, you can see the planet as a disc and even its four big moons, as tiny dots either side.

I won’t allow you to leave this part of the sky without looking at the Pleiades, a little further to the right. This little group of stars is one of the best objects you can point your binoculars at.

Now that you are expert at using “bins”, you are ready for comet spotting. Panstarrs will never be very high in the sky, so you may need to find somewhere elevated to get a good view of the western horizon. Wait until the Sun has vanished completely before you get your glasses out and start looking to the west.

As there will be no stars visible initially, find Jupiter and then angle down at about 45 degrees till you meet the horizon. You may need to sweep very gently left and right to locate the comet.

It will be at its brightest when it first appears from behind the Sun and it will never be very high as this part of the sky is getting lower each day. There will be a thin crescent Moon next to it on the 12th.

I don’t do weather predictions but I can say you will have to be prepared to look on a daily basis. It will be worth it though, as this will be the best comet of the year.

Or will it?

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