Utahns should be able to see Comet Pan-STARRS low in western horizon
Viewing party • The Salt Lake Astronomical Society will let people look through its large telescope Wednesday evening.
Published: March 11, 2013 08:53AM
Updated: March 11, 2013 02:38PM
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This March 2, 2013, photo made available by spaceweather.com shows the comet, Pan-STARRS, seen from Queenstown, New Zealand. The recently discovered comet is closer than it's ever been to Earth, and stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere finally get to see it. The comet passed within 100 million miles of Earth on Tuesday, March 5, 2013, its closest approach in its first-ever cruise through the inner solar system. The best viewing days should be Tuesday and Wednesday, March 12 and 13, when Pan-STARRS appears next to a crescent moon at dusk in the western sky. Until then, glare from the sun will obscure the comet. (AP Photo/spaceweather.com, Minoru Yoneto)

Utahns likely will be able to catch a glimpse of a comet in the dusk sky this week.

Comet Pan-STARRS will be coming within 30 million miles of the sun for what appears to be the first time, according to Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium.

“The thing that is cool is this is a brand new comet, coming from the Oort Cloud,” Jarvis said. “This has been falling into the sun for more than 1 million years.”

Comets are incredibly difficult to predict. Jarvis and Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, both quoted David Levy of Comet Shoemaker-Levy fame: “Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”

A new comet has the potential to be quite bright as it may have plenty of volatile material that is just waiting to melt off and glow in a bright tail. Or, maybe the comet needs to come back around a couple of times on its 10,000-year orbit to discard enough of its outer shell to put on a good show.

Wiggins warned of the hype that surrounded Comet Kohoutek in the 1970s when it was deemed the comet of the century. However, it had partly disintegrated by the time of its near approach and was widely viewed as a letdown.

“We have a subdued excitement,” Wiggins said. “There are lots of crossed fingers.”

Astronomers in the southern hemisphere could see the comet last week, and they said viewers may need help finding the comet in the dusk sky. However, people should be able to see it well with binoculars, Wiggins said, and possibly with the naked eye.

The Salt Lake Astronomical Society will open up its large, 200mm telescope at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Viewers should be able to see Comet Pan-STARRS, a distant Comet ISON, a delicate crescent moon and Jupiter Wednesday night.

National Weather Service meteorologist Monica Traphagan said a high-pressure system should clear out the sky for the most part.

“Weather shouldn’t be an issue,” she said.

Viewers wanting to see the comet from the Salt Lake Valley need to have a low western horizon, meaning being up on the east bench or down in the Tooele valley away from mountains, and should look due west right as sun is setting. It’s important not to look directly at the sun. The comet should be visible just below an incredibly thin crescent moon Wednesday night just above the horizon.

Comet ISON is causing a stir in the astronomy community as it may be a daylight-visible comet when it gets within a mere 1 million miles of the sun in November. Again, though, astronomers are tempering their expectations.

smcfarland@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sheena5427