(WSYR-TV, Syracuse) Comet PANSTARRS was discovered June 7, 2011, and since then has steadily grown in brightness as it approaches the sun. PANSTARRS is an acronym for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response Team. Merely a fancy name for a big imaging telescope at the University of Hawaii. Until now, the comet has only been visible across Earth's Southern Hemisphere. Now as the comet approaches perihelion, (closest approach to the sun) Saturday evening (March 9th) it is now visible in our western sky.
Where to look
It's real easy. Right after sunset on a clear evening, you'll want to look west. The comet will be low in the western sky, and should be visible for about an hour after sunset. If you go out and look at 9 or 10 in the evening, you will not see it. PANSTARRS will have already dipped below the horizon. If you can get to a hilltop or a location which provides an unobstructed view of the western horizon, better yet. If you are away from city lights, and looking west, it's possible that the tail of the comet could remain visible, despite the head of PANSTARRS being below the horizon.
What you'll see
To the naked eye, the comet should appear as a fuzzy blob in the western sky. You may need to use averted vision to see it better. The brightness of the comet right now is reportedly brighter than forecasts were. Minimally, the brightness of the comet should be about what the stars of the Big Dipper are. If you have binoculars or a small telescope, it'll be possible to see the tail in more clarity. Usually there are 2 tails coming from a comet: a larger dust trail and a smaller train of ions.
Something to watch for next week
If the weather cooperates, a unique viewing opportunity will present itself Tuesday and Wednesday, March 12 and 13. That's when Comet PANSTARRS will be near the crescent moon in the western sky. Let's hope for clear skies.
Keep in mind that it's impossible to precisely predict the brightness of comets. They could unexpectedly brighten or fade away. That's why it pays to go outside and look westward over the next couple of weeks. You never know what you'll see. So far PANSTARRS has failed to disappoint in the Southern Hemisphere.