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Clear Sky Makes Comet View Possible Just After Sunset

Comet Pan-STARRS is expected to be visible in the western sky in Alpharetta and Milton not far from the crescent Moon.

Step outside just a little bit after sunset today or Wednesday, March 13, and you might get to see a comet with the naked eye. Comet Pan-STARRS is expected to be visible in the west just after sunset for up to an hour.

Most experts expect it to become a naked-eye object about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper, according to NASA.gov.

On March 12 and 13,, Astronomy Magazine's Richard Talcott says the crescent Moon can guide you to the comet. On the 12th, PANSTARRS stands to the upper left of our satellite; the next evening, the comet lies to the Moon’s lower right.

Sunset is at 7:43 p.m. today, and at 7:44 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department.

"Because of its small distance from the sun, Pan-STARRS should be very active, producing a lot of dust and therefore a nice dust tail," predicts Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory on NASA.gov.

"However," he cautions, "it could still be difficult to see.  From our point of view on Earth, the comet will be very close to the sun. This means that it is only observable in twilight when the sky is not fully dark."

The best dates to look may be March 12th and 13th when Pan-STARRS emerges in the western sunset sky not far from the crescent Moon. The comet's tail will probably require binoculars or a small telescope to see, though the gaseous coma around the head of the comet should be visible to the naked eye.

Another key date is March 10th, when the comet comes closest to the sun.  The dose of solar heating it receives just inside the orbit of Mercury could be just what the comet needs to push it into the realm of naked-eye visibility.

Are you into astrophotography? Upload your own photos of Comet Pan-STARRS to this article on Alpharetta-Milton Patch (click on the link just below the video above) and tell us about.

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