Comet visible in March skies

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There is lots of excitement this month with the appearance of the first of two comets that will be visible this year. Comet PanSTARRS will become visible beginning about March 7, low on the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. By the 20th it will have risen to about 10 degrees above the horizon and should be easy to find about an hour after sunset.

The comet will slowly move to the northwest and then north, gaining altitude until it is fully 40 degrees above the northern horizon in late May, passing just east of Polaris, the North Star. It is predicted to reach magnitude -0.2 on March 10, thereafter fading to magnitude 8.7 by the end of May. I would like to offer a word of caution about the brightness of comets. Since they are large and diffuse it means their brightness is spread over a larger area than that of a star or planet and therefore they may not appear as bright as you might expect.

As a result you will probably need a small telescope or binoculars to find the comet toward the middle to end of April. Also, predictions of cometary brightness are difficult because they depend on how much material is blown off the comet’s nucleus by the solar wind. I would also like to point out that the positions and times given for the comet’s path are based on placing the observer at 40 degrees north latitude. You may need to adjust your viewing times depending on whether you live north or south of 40 degrees. Don’t fret if you miss PanSTARRS, as we have a doozy of a comet due in December.

March is also a great time to view the Zodiacal Light. Look west on a clear, moonless night a couple of hours after sunset. You should see a band of very diffuse light rising from the horizon and tilting slightly to the left. This is sunlight reflecting off of interplanetary dust in the ecliptic, which is the plane of the solar system. The dust mostly comes from the breakup of short period comets.

Jupiter remains high in the night sky at sunset. During March its brightness will diminish slightly from magnitude -2.3 to -2.1. Against the background of stars Jupiter will appear to move eastward passing just north of Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus.

In early March the ringed planet Saturn will rise between 10 and 11 p.m. and by the end of the month less than an hour after twilight. At an average of 19 degrees tilt, the rings remain a magnificent sight! Venus, Mars and Mercury are all too close to the sun and will elude us for a while longer.

The moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, first quarter on the 19th and full on the 27th.

On March 17th, looking up and to the west, the waxing moon will be found between Jupiter and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. On the 23rd and 24th, looking high to the southeast, the moon will bracket the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo “the Lion.” On the 28th, look low in the southeast around 11 p.m. The moon will be above and to right of the ringed planet Saturn

Two noteworthy events coming up include the beginning of Daylight Savings Time at 2 a.m. on March 10. Don’t forget to “spring forward” and set your clocks ahead one hour. Also, the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox) begins at 5:02 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time, on the 20th.