Pan-Starrs Can Be Seen Just After Sunset
This week marks the best chance to see the Comet Pan-Starrs in the skies over Houston. The comet is passing by Earth throughout the month of March, but it only became visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the past few days and will continue to fade over the rest of the month. The clear skies over Houston over the next two nights provide the perfect opportunity for space buffs and star gazers to take a gander at the comet. Dr. Patricia Reiff, Physics and Astronomy Professor at Rice University, says a comet can best be described as an asteroid with a tail. "The difference between an asteroid and a comet is that a comet has a lot more water," she tells KTRH. "And so when it passes close to the sun, that water evaporates and gives it a tail."
Dr. Reiff says comets are notoriously unpredictable, but the Pan-Starrs did provide some warning. "Very seldom do we get a good forecast that's more than a few months ahead," she says. "This is one that we found out about three months ago and it's turned out to be a pretty nice one." The Pan-Starrs is visible in the western sky near the horizon, just after sunset but before the sky goes completely dark. "The best time I saw it was from about 8:15 to about 8:25," says Dr. Reiff. She recommends using binoculars, since the Pan-Starrs isn't the brightest comet and doesn't have the largest tail. "It's tail is relatively short, so it does take a little bit of looking to find it," she says. Dr. Reiff also advises moving away from bright city lights that can drown out the comet.
The Pan-Starrs is an exciting event, but it might only be the warm-up for a much better show later this year. The comet ISON, which is said to be even brighter than a full moon, is predicted to pass by Earth in November. It all makes for one of the best times in history for astronomers. "This has been a great year," says Dr. Reiff. "We've had meteors, meteorites, and comets."
Check out a NASA video on the Comet Pan-Starrs here.