Comet PanSTARRS is now on its final charge towards perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), which it reaches on March 10, 2013. Sadly, it's been a disappointing last couple of months for comet enthusiasts tracking this object. Originally expected to be a great comet in early March, PanSTARRS was predicted to be as bright as magnitude -1 but has somewhat fizzled out since the start of the year. It is now seems likely that it will peak at only magnitude 2. Although nowhere near as bright as originally hoped, the comet should still be a naked eye object and a fine sight during March.

Comets are often very unpredictable and PanSTARRS is no exception. Just when it appeared to be sputtering, it suddenly showed an increased rate of brightening during the second week of February. Since its very difficult to predict how comets will react when they pass close to the Sun, PanSTARRS may still have a surprise in store for us. Who knows, perhaps in the end something not far short of the dazzling performance originally predicted? Only time will tell!

Comet PanSTARRS on February 8, 2013 (Michael Mattiazzo - http://members.westnet.com.au/mmatti/sc.htm)

Recent observations

On January 31, PanSTARRS was shining at magnitude 7.0 and located in the constellation of Corona Australis. Although some 1.5 magnitudes fainter then originally predicted, the comet had still brightened sufficiently to be visible in binoculars, appearing non-stellar with a faint coma surrounding a bright nucleus. A few days later on February 5, PanSTARRS was up to magnitude 6.4 with an increased coma of 5 arc minutes in diameter. When viewed through 10x50 binoculars or a small telescope, the coma was obvious, appearing condensed and slightly elongation. The first real visually signs of a tail were also apparent. Despite spanning only about a quarter of a degree in length, this small tail should grow significantly over the coming few weeks. On February 11, the comet reached magnitude 6.1 and at the fringe of naked eye visibility. Now easily visible with binoculars, the coma was up to 7 arc minutes in diameter with a half a degree tail. The comet remained a low down morning twilight object (for southern hemisphere observers) in the constellation of Microscopium. Then came a noticeable increase in brightness that was faster than expected. PanSTARRS reached magnitude 5.4 on February 15, 0.7 magnitudes brighter than 4 days earlier. Around this time also came the first flurry of naked eye sightings arrived.

Location, magnitude and star chart

After traveling through the southern section of the sky for much of the recent past, PanSTARRS is now heading northeastwards at some pace. On February 13, the comet was located at a declination of 44 degrees south in the constellation of Microscopium. It then moved into Grus on February 16. PanSTARRS will then pass into Piscis Austrinus on February 23 at a declination of 35 degrees south. The comet remains in Piscis Austrinus for only 3 days before moving into Sculptor on February 26. The magnitude of PanSTARRS is now estimated to increase from 5.4 on February 15 to 3.3 on February 27.

The charts below show the position of PanSTARRS until February 27, 2013.

Finder Chart for Comet PanSTARRS from January 26, 2013 to February 17, 2013

Finder Chart for Comet PanSTARRS from January 26, 2013 to February 17, 2013 - pdf format

Finder Chart for Comet PanSTARRS from February 13, 2013 to February 27, 2013

Finder Chart for Comet PanSTARRS from February 13, 2013 to February 27, 2013 - pdf format

Current visibility

During February PanSTARRS is visible only from the southern hemisphere. For the first three weeks of the month PanSTARRS is a morning twilight object. From latitude 30 degrees south (the approximate position of Santiago, Cape Town, Perth and Sydney) the comet stood about 15 degrees above the southeastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise and remained low above the horizon until about the middle of the month. It then draws in towards the Sun, decreasing in latitude each day. PanSTARRS then reappears in the evening sky during the last week of February and is visible very low down towards the western horizon during twilight.

On February 26, there is a great marker in the sky that aids searching for the comet. The first magnitude star Fomalhaut (α PsA - mag. 1.2) lies only 2 degrees to the north of PanSTARRS and both objects will appear very low down in the western sky during evening twilight. The best approach is to first locate Fomalhaut and then use binoculars or a small telescope to pinpoint mag. 3.5 PanSTARRS.

For northern hemisphere observers, the comet will remain invisible throughout February. They will have to wait until mid-March to catch their first glimpse of it when it appears as an early evening object.

Comet PanSTARRS

NameC/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)
Discovered ByPan-STARRS
Discovery DateJune 6, 2011
EpochFeb 4, 2012
Aphelion (AU)unknown
Perihelion (AU)0.3016
Eccentricity1.0001
Orbital Period (years)~110,000
Inclination (degrees)84.19
Next perihelionMarch 10, 2013

Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) Data Table

DateRight AscensionDeclinationMag.Distance from Earth (AU)Constellation
15 Feb 201321h 11m 15s-43d 40m 49s5.41.316Microscopium
16 Feb 201321h 20m 45s-43d 09m 46s5.21.296Microscopium
17 Feb 201321h 30m 23s-42d 33m 55s5.01.276Grus
18 Feb 201321h 40m 09s-41d 52m 55s4.81.257Grus
19 Feb 201321h 49m 60s-41d 06m 26s4.61.238Grus
20 Feb 201321h 59m 54s-40d 14m 07s4.51.221Grus
21 Feb 201322h 09m 50s-39d 15m 39s4.41.204Grus
22 Feb 201322h 19m 45s-38d 10m 45s4.31.188Grus
23 Feb 201322h 29m 37s-36d 59m 08s4.11.173Grus
24 Feb 201322h 39m 23s-35d 40m 33s3.91.160Piscis Austrinus
25 Feb 201322h 49m 01s-34d 14m 50s3.71.147Piscis Austrinus
26 Feb 201322h 58m 28s-32d 41m 48s3.51.136Piscis Austrinus
27 Feb 201323h 07m 42s-31d 01m 21s3.31.126Sculptor
28 Feb 201323h 16m 39s-29d 13m 27s3.11.118Sculptor
01 Mar 201323h 25m 19s-27d 18m 09s2.91.111Sculptor
02 Mar 201323h 33m 37s-25d 15m 32s2.71.105Sculptor
03 Mar 201323h 41m 31s-23d 05m 52s2.51.101Aquarius
04 Mar 201323h 48m 58s-20d 49m 27s2.31.098Aquarius
05 Mar 201323h 55m 56s-18d 26m 49s2.11.097Aquarius
06 Mar 201300h 02m 21s-15d 58m 38s2.01.097Cetus
07 Mar 201300h 08m 12s-13d 25m 47s1.81.099Cetus
08 Mar 201300h 13m 25s-10d 49m 22s1.71.101Cetus
09 Mar 201300h 18m 00s-08d 10m 41s1.71.105Cetus
10 Mar 201300h 21m 57s-05d 31m 13s1.71.109Pisces
11 Mar 201300h 25m 16s-02d 52m 25s1.71.115Pisces
12 Mar 201300h 27m 59s00d 15m 45s1.81.120Cetus
13 Mar 201300h 30m 10s02d 17m 36s1.81.127Cetus
14 Mar 201300h 31m 51s04d 46m 38s2.01.133Pisces
15 Mar 201300h 33m 08s07d 10m 44s2.21.140Pisces
16 Mar 201300h 34m 03s09d 29m 30s2.31.148Pisces
17 Mar 201300h 34m 41s11d 42m 48s2.51.155Pisces
18 Mar 201300h 35m 05s13d 50m 40s2.71.163Pisces
19 Mar 201300h 35m 17s15d 53m 17s2.91.170Pisces
20 Mar 201300h 35m 20s17d 50m 53s3.11.178Pisces
21 Mar 201300h 35m 16s19d 43m 45s3.21.186Pisces
22 Mar 201300h 35m 06s21d 32m 12s3.41.194Pisces
23 Mar 201300h 34m 52s23d 16m 31s3.71.202Andromeda
24 Mar 201300h 34m 35s24d 57m 01s3.91.210Andromeda
25 Mar 201300h 34m 14s26d 33m 58s4.01.218Andromeda
26 Mar 201300h 33m 52s28d 07m 39s4.21.226Andromeda
27 Mar 201300h 33m 28s29d 38m 18s4.41.234Andromeda
28 Mar 201300h 33m 03s31d 06m 09s4.61.243Andromeda
29 Mar 201300h 32m 37s32d 31m 25s4.81.251Andromeda
30 Mar 201300h 32m 10s33d 54m 17s5.01.259Andromeda
31 Mar 201300h 31m 44s35d 14m 56s5.21.267Andromeda

See also

Final swan song for Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4)
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) heads towards a close pass by of Polaris, the Northern Pole Star
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) moves through Cassiopeia
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) starts to fade but remains a naked eye and binocular target
Media Frenzy as Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) is now visible to observers in the Northern Hemisphere
How to see Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in March 2013
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) on the verge of naked eye visibility
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) brightens to within binocular range


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