Halley's Comet
Halley’s Comet

Step outside in mid-March 2013 and you may just see a comet that has the astronomical community abuzz!  It’s called comet “PanSTARRS,” named after the observatory in Hawaii that discovered the comet in 2011.

Not to worry: The comet won’t hit Earth like that asteroid did in Russia last month!  At its closest approach to Earth on March 5, the comet will be about 100 million miles (161 million kilometers) away.  At its closest approach to the Sun on March 10 it will be just inside the orbit of Pluto.

But that’s close enough to make for a spectacular site — assuming the comet cooperates!  Comets are notoriously unpredictable: As David Levy, the famous comet discoverer, once put it, “Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”  At one extreme, the comet could release a nice display of dust resulting in a bright, beautiful tail visible to the naked eye, or at the other extreme it could break apart and fizzle out.  As of this writing, most predictions are that the comet will be about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper.

NASA image showing positions of comet PanSTARRS in March 2013 relative to the western horizon

The comet will be visible to Northern Hemisphere observers shortly after sunset.  It will appear low on the western horizon.  If I had to bet, I would wager we’ll see the head of the comet with our naked eyes, but will likely need a pair of binoculars to see the comet’s dusty tail.

You may want to start looking for the comet as early as March 10, and check it every evening through late March.  After that, the comet will grow significantly fainter.  During March the comet will appear in the Name A Star Live constellations Aquarius, Pisces and Andromeda.

Be sure to check out this neat NASA video about comet PanSTARRS.  It’s very informative and lasts shortly over 4 minutes.

Finally, an even brighter comet is expected to be seen in November 2013: Comet ISON.  We’ll have more to say about that comet later this year.