Anticipation is building as Comet Panstarrs heads for perihelion on March 10. Will it live up to all the “comet hype” to become a spectacular comet like Hale-Bopp or Hyakutake (see: Comet Panstarrs or Bust)?
Current predictions and its recent performance suggest that Panstarrs will fall short of being a truly great comet. Nevertheless, it should still become a memorable object to see especially from a dark-sky location.
Southern Hemisphere observers tracking the comet during the last week of February have reported that Panstarrs is visible to the naked eye and displays a prominent dust tail 1.5° long. According to comet expert John Bortle, he expects “a peak brightness of about (magnitude) +2.2 on or about March 10th, with a slow fading thereafter taking the comet to about magnitude +5.0 by month’s end.” He goes on say that Panstarrs “… should exhibit a fairly broad, strongly curving dust tail between 5 and 15 degrees in extent.” For more of Bortle’s comments, see Sky & Telescope: Panstarrs Update.
German astronomer Uwe Pilz has made some simulations of Panstarrs’ predicted dust tail during March. It will curve up and to the left for Northern Hemisphere observers looking west about 40 minutes after sunset. Using Pilz’ simulations and a bit of artistic license, I have created a Photoshop image of what Comet Panstarrs may look like. The dust tail is broad and curves to the left while the ion tail is narrow and points straight up.
Keep in mind that the relative brightnesses of the two tails are only a guess. The gas tail will probably be much fainter and may only be visible though binoculars or photographically with time exposures.
There is cautious optimism that Comet Panstarrs will remain a naked eye comet with a visible dust tail during early evenings from mid to late March. A dark sky with a low western horizon will be essential for the best views of the comet in order to follow it as the glow of evening twilight fades.
Visit Comet Panstarrs Viewing Charts to see individual sky charts for every day from March 5 through March 25.