As I write this, the news is all about a visitor to our night skies - Comet PanSTARRS.
A comet differs from meteroids and asteroids in that it usually contains plenty of water ice that vaporizes and streams off as it approaches the sun. This is what makes it bright and gives it the "tail" that makes it so different from anything else in the night sky.
Visible comets are a rare occurance and I encourage you to try to see this one. However, it will only be visible for a couple of weeks and it will truely be a hunt! Only if you are very determined will you be able to enjoy it.
Here's why. Comet PanSTARRS (named for the telescopic survey that discovered it) is very close to the sun. Obviously, you have to wait for the sun to set so it will be dark enough to see it, but (here's the catch) you can't wait too long! Since it's so close to the sun, you will only have at most an hour to see it before it too sets for the day.
So this means you have to find an unobstructed view of the western horizon. Not an easy task for New Jerseyans, but not an impossible one either.
The best thing I can recommend is to plan ahead. Scout out a location during the day that gives you the best view of the western horizon. Bring a compass so you can figure where the sun will be when it sets. Since we're close to the spring equinox, figure the sun to set due west.
Predictions for the comet's brightness say it will be about as bright as an "average" evening star for New Jersey. You should be able to see it with just your eyes, but a good pair of binoculars will certainly add to the enjoyment! (A telescope is not necessary!) Watch for the "New Moon" - it will be in view as well!
PanSTARRS should be visible now, but will fade from view as March comes to a close. If you find a great location with public access, please report it here so others can benefit.
Some web sites to help you are:
We may have another comet to view at the end of this year - Comet ISON, which has the potential to be spectacular! Watch the news for this one.
After you have viewed PanSTARRS, look up and enjoy bright Jupiter!
Refer to my Patch blog for February to then find Orion. Use your binoculars to gaze upon the The Orion Nebula (M42) and the Pleadies Star Cluster (M45). Look to the Northeast and see the Big Dipper up on its "handle".
These are just some of the sights you can see in the March sky.
If you have any questions, please email me at Paul@AstronomyNJ.com.
Clear skies and Happy Comet Hunting!
Next Month: A Lion Roars!