Get ready, people in New Jersey, and indeed the whole Northern Hemisphere.
Something may be about to happen that hasn’t happened in 16 years. A truly great comet may be appearing in our skies.
As I write these words, astronomers are not sure whether the comet called Pan-STARRS will keep brightening rapidly as it nears its closest approach to the sun in space on March 10. If it does, the object and its tail (or tails) may become plainly visible to the naked eye as it finally gets far enough north to see from the latitude of New Jersey.
A key date is Tuesday, March 12. That’s when Comet Pan-STARRS will appear quite near a lovely slender crescent moon right after sunset.
Another key date for those of us in southern New Jersey is Friday, March 15, when the South Jersey Astronomy Club (SJAC) will hold a free public “Skywatch” and the comet should be visible for a little while before it sets below the treeline at the field at Belleplain State Forest.
A great comet for March?: By an odd coincidence, every one of the four certifiably great comets visible from the U.S. in the past 47 years has been at or near its best in March.
Comet Bennett first appeared at dawn in late March 1970.
The first installment of this column was published in The Press of Atlantic City on March 1, 1976, when the mighty Comet West was about to appear in our dawn sky.
Our two great evening comets were Hyakutake in 1996 and Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. March 1986 was when Halley’s Comet was best, but it was a rare return of the comet where its brightness was not truly great — only about as bright as some of the dimmer stars of the Big Dipper.
That level of brightness is what Comet Pan-STARRS had achieved for Southern Hemisphere observers by Feb. 28. After a disappointing January for the comet, late February saw a fine kindling and if — still a big if — the trend continues, the comet could rival some of the brightest stars in a week or two.
Low in evening twilight: Even if Comet Pan-STARRS turns out to be as bright as we hope, it will almost certainly be less spectacular than the other four great comet appearances — Bennett, West, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp — due to its location low in the bright western sky after sunset.
Your fist held out at arm’s length appears about 10 degrees wide and that is how far above the almost due-west horizon Pan-STARRS will be if you are looking about 30 minutes after sunset next week. That will be roughly 7:40 p.m.
The moon-comet pairing and free skywatch: You will want to start looking quite a few minutes earlier than 7:40 p.m. March 12 to try to spot the comet only about 4 degrees to the left of a slim crescent moon.
Most binoculars will fit the moon and comet into a single field of view, and binoculars will give you a better view of what may be mostly a dust tail curving to the upper left. I’m hoping the tail will appear as long as 5 degrees or even 10 degrees, at least in binoculars, by then.
Dramatic structure in the comet’s head, and perhaps tail, should be visible in good telescopes. If you don’t have a telescope, you can attend the SJAC Skywatch at Belleplain on March 15. The event is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., but you should probably arrive earlier if you want to be sure to catch the comet.
The next day is the bad weather back-up date. To find out whether the Skywatch is being postponed until the next day, or information about how to get to the field at Belleplain, you can visit www.sjac.us or call the Forest Office at 609-861-2404.
If Comet Pan-STARRS doesn’t pan out, a much greater comet is due near year’s end.
St. Patrick’s Day sky show: On the evening of Sunday, March 17, be sure to check out brilliant Jupiter very close to the moon.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org