Mar 05

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – March, 2013

Comet Who?

Not too much has happened since this column last appeared, besides a small asteroid not hitting any GPS satellites and a meteor not hitting a city! As Harry Carey used to say, “Holy Cow” Of course, anything I write about that now is ancient history, but I just had to mention it. The meteor videos were unbelievable. I saw one about a hundred-millionth that big once and IT was impressive.

Hopefully we won’t see anything like that but we may have an opportunity to see the first of two comets that could be visible to the naked eye in 2013. Comet PanSTARRS should appear low in the western sky after sunset starting around March 7. You will need a clear view of the horizon and crystal clear skies, but it still may be difficult to spot low in the twilight so bring binoculars.

Comet-hunter David Levy once said, “Comets are like cats; they have tails and they do precisely what they want. That’s why it’s so difficult to predict how bright they will become as they pass close to the Sun and Earth. Right now the comet is visible to viewers in the southern hemisphere where good, naked eye observations are being reported. The comet will pass closest to Earth on March 5 and closest to the Sun on March 10. Comets are usually brightest when near the Sun due to the solar heating of the surface which releases gasses and dust that form the tail.

My personal recommendation is to look as soon as the sky darkens on March 12. Scan with binoculars low in the west and look for a very thin, crescent Moon. You should be able to spot the comet just to its left.

Even if you are not able to see this comet, your experience in hunting will come in handy in December.

In case you are wondering, comets are named after their discoverer(s), like Comets Hyukataki or Hale-Bopp (two guys) and by “discoverer” I mean the first person to see it (nowadays, image it) in a telescope. This comet was “discovered” by the PanSTARRS automated sky survey in Hawaii almost two years ago. Hence the name.

This month in history:
March 1: Venera 3 impacts on Venus – 1966
March 8: Voyager 1 discovers first active extraterrestrial volcanoes (on Jupiter’s moon Io) – 1979
March 14: Albert Einstein born – 1879
March 22: Comet Hale-Bopp passes closest to Earth – 1997
March 25: Comet Hyakutake passes closest to Earth – 1996
March 31: Official end of Pioneer 10 mission – 1997