Comet Pan-STARRS Visible in Northern Hemisphere Starting March 12


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This is the location of Comet Pan-STARRS in western sky during March, 2013. Image Credit: NASA.

If Comet Pan-STARRS reaches naked eye visibility, you will need no optical aid to observe it. With luck the tail will be long enough to not fit into the field of view of a telescope. If the comet is just below or only a little above naked eye visibility, however a pair of binoculars will allow you to see the comet a little more clearly and bring out faint features in its tail.

What Are Comets?

The major parts of a comet are the nucleus, coma, and (usually 2) tails. The comet’s nucleus is like a dirty snowball, a mixture of rocky and icy materials that is typically a few miles in diameter. The icy materials include water ice and other materials that are usually gas or liquid on Earth, but freeze in the cold depths of space.

Comets typically orbit the Sun in highly elongated orbits. As they approach the Sun, some of the icy materials sublimate, meaning they go directly from the solid to the gas phase. This gas then forms a coma surrounding the nucleus. Small particles of dust from the rocky materials also escape the nucleus. Earthbound stargazers observing the comet see the coma at the tip of the comet.

The combination of the solar wind, protons and electrons streaming directly outward from the Sun, and pressure from sunlight reflecting off dust particles forms the comets two tails.

  • The curved tail is the dust tail consisting of dust particles blown away from the nucleus.
  • The straight gas tail contains the ionized atoms and molecules blown out of the coma by the solar wind.

Regardless of the comet’s direction of motion, both tails point away from the Sun.

Discovery Image of Comet Pan-STARRS Image Credit: Pan-STARRS/Rw Creative Commons License.

Comets are named for whoever discovers them. Comet Pan-STARRS is named for the automated survey telescope, called the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, that discovered it.

Next fall, look for comet ISON, which will probably be much brighter than Comet Pan-STARRS, and will be well-situated for northern hemisphere observers. Neither of these comets pose any danger to Earth.


NASA. A Possible Naked-eye Comet in March. (2013). Accessed March 7, 2013.

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