Comet Pan-STARRS streaks through the skies above New Zealand in this Jan. 23, 2013, still image courtesy of John Drummond via NASA video. REUTERS/NASA/Science@NASA/John Drummond/Handout
COVINGTON — If you want bragging rights about seeing one of the year’s three comets as they streak across the sky, the Charlie Elliott Chapter of the Atlanta Astronomy Club is making it possible for residents to conveniently catch a glimpse of one of them March 9 and 10.
“Because it will be at its closest distance to the sun when it becomes visible in the evening sky,” club member Theo Ramakers of Oxford said of the comet, “it will be very low in the western sky and very close to the sun, less than 10 degrees above the horizon, at about half an hour after sunset. However, as it moves away from the sun (and Earth) later in March and April, it will become visible later and higher, but unfortunately also dimmer.
“So, we have scouted out the area and believe, if the weather and the comet cooperate, there is a very good chance the comet will be visible very nicely from the parking lot at Lake Varner, 2 miles north of Interstate 20, just off Alcovy Road in Covington (Exit 87 North). We have received permission for a community event to show the comet to local residents on March 9 and 10 from the parking lot from sunset until one hour after sunset.”
Ramakers said the times would be approximately from 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday and, because of the daylight-saving time change, from 7 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
“If we have clear skies with no, or very few, clouds at the horizon, we believe the comet should be visible through our binoculars and telescopes and maybe even with the unaided eye,” he said.
Ramakers said residents could try to catch a glimpse themselves on March 12 by looking a just a little left of the sun just at sunset, but, of course, they should be careful to not look directly at the sun with binoculars or other devices.
Again, on March 16, the astronomy club will be at Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center at Dove Field off Shepherd’s Road at County Road 2 and invites residents to come at sunset to try to catch a glimpse of the comet.
Ramakers explained that comets are called “dirty snowballs” because they consist mainly of dry ice and space dust. When the comet approaches the sun and warms up and the ice changes from solid ice to gas, the tail of dust particles is blown away from the sun because of strong solar winds. That’s when the comet puts on a beautiful display.
The comet that will be visible locally over the weekend is a new discovery coming from the Oort Cloud, which is located beyond the orbit of Pluto. The comet was discovered in 2011 with the designation C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS, named after the automated discovery telescope PanSTARRS in Hawaii that made the discovery when the comet was still very faint.
“Scientists are not sure how the comet will behave, since this is a new comet with its first encounter with the sun in recorded history,” Ramakers said. “It is anticipated that it might become very bright once it sweeps around the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury and the dust tail might develop to a bright magnitude. At that time, it also will have moved from the morning sky into the evening sky, or better said, be visible in the twilight before dark. But then again, if things go wrong, it might just fade away.”
For more information, go to http://ceastronomy.org/blog as weather conditions could cause schedule changes.