Yesterday (03/12) and today were supposed to be the best times to view Comet PanSTARRS here in the northern hemisphere. Sadly, I've been watching the sky and I've seen nothing. Most nights the sky is cloudy.
Last night seemed to follow that tired theme. But at 8 pm, I saw that there were a few breaks appearing in the west and I gathered up my Xoom tablet and my camera and tripod and trudged to the field behind our house. It was a cold evening with gusty winds and snow in the forecast. What hope did I have?
At first the sky was heavily clouded, red with the setting sun's glow and wholly uncooperative But later a thin opening moved eastward and for a short while both the moon (which served as my guide) and the comet were visible.
Here's a telephoto view of the comet at about 8:34 pm. I could not see it with my naked eye. The camera, with a 5 second time exposure (ISO 400, f/5.6) was able to bring it up.
When I first went outside, this is what I saw. Sunset's glow still colored the sky but a band of heavy clouds was overhead. I used a distant tree as a ruler of sorts, watching the clouds move up and east. I figured if I waited long enough, the moon (which I could not yet see) and the comet would become visible.
I sat the Motorola Xoom on a stump and used a program called "PanSTARRS Finder" to locate the comet. I knew it'd be just left of the moon so I took this test shot to see if it might uncover the comet. But nothing! I decided that the comet had to be farther to the left and so I opened up the view.
And so, here is my first view of the comet. It's on the far left of the frame. It was much farther south of the moon than I expected. While I could not see it with my naked eye - even after I knew where to look - the camera served the purpose well. A pair of binoculars might have done as well.
I panned a little south for this shot. Amazingly, the only clearing for the entire sky was in the west, right where I needed it to be!
Here's another full zoom of the comet (probably 20x). The coma glows a dim orange and the tail fans out behind it. PanSTARRS reached perihelion on Sunday and is now moving away from the sun, literally flying into its tail.
And here's a wide panorama to offer some idea of the scale. Now that the comet has rounded the sun, it'll grow dimmer each night. It's moving a little higher in the sky each evening and to the north (right). I'll try to see it again if the weather cooperates.
Later: March 22 - The Long Good-bye
I have tried for the past week and a half to see the comet one last time. Even the few clear days we've had have met with gathering clouds at dusk. I've walked back to the field some nights, merely looked through the second floor window on others and all I've seen are clouds.
Last night seemed to offer better hope. I was at the edge of the field by 8:30 pm and stood watching as the glow of sunset faded and the stars began to appear. I saw no comet. As a last-ditch effort, I began taking photographs, scanning across the sky slowly, one section at a time, overlapping as I went. In all I took over two dozen photographs. I saw nothing on my LCD screen that indicated I had captured the comet.
But, at 8:52 pm, one frame shows PanSTARRS for a last time.
There at the bottom of the frame is the comet, it's tail now trailing off a little to the right (where on March 12 it was decidedly to the left), still ever pointing at the sun well below my horizon. Click on the frame for a higher resolution version (this is cropped from a full frame).
And so, that's it, the last I'll look for Comet PanSTARRS. In all it was a bit disappointing here, never so bright as I'd have hoped and never a naked eye object for me.
My attention now turns to fall when Comet ISON should grace our skies with a marvelous display, perhaps even history making. If the current forecasts hold, it will put this one to shame. And yet all comets are marvels, never to be missed.