The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 10, 2013

Comet's best showing to be Tue., Wed.

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

— Early this week, a bright new star will grace the western sky just after sunset.

Except this isn’t a star at all — it’s a comet.

Comet C/2011 L4 Pan STARRS, a rocky ball of dirt, gas and dust, was discovered in June 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, located atop Hawaii’s Haleakala volcano, according to NASA.

Last Tuesday, the comet passed to within 100 million miles of Earth, its closest approach to the planet.

The icy body originated from the Oort Cloud, a gathering of rocky, dusty bodies in orbit trillions of miles from the sun. Every once in a while, debris orbiting in the Oort Cloud will get drawn out pulled in on a path toward the sun.

The visibility of the comet in Enid’s night sky remains a mystery, because it’s newly discovered. It could become bright enough to see with the naked eye, or it could simply remain a speck against the inky backdrop of the March night sky.

“It’s going to be here ... but it’s (going to be) close to the sun. I don’t know how well it’s going to be visible in our location,” said Bob Killam, director of Northern Oklahoma College Enid’s observatory.

In his most recent astronomy column, Killam said the comet will be visible to the naked eye through the end of the month, but viewers will need a good, dark location, looking west an hour after sunset.

“If (the comet) does show a tail, it’s going to be perpendicular to the horizon,” Killam said.

Tuesday and Wednesday will the best days to see it, as the comet will continue its trek through the solar system.

The comet has been visible for weeks from the Southern Hemisphere.

California astronomer Tony Phillips said the comet’s proximity to the moon will make it easier for novice sky watchers to find it. Binoculars likely will be needed for the best viewing, he said, warning onlookers to avoid pointing them at the setting sun.

“Wait until the sun is fully below the horizon to scan for the comet in the darkening twilight,” Phillips advised in an email sent from his home and observatory in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Comet Pan STARRS won’t be the only such object to grace Enid’s skies this year. In November, comet ISON is expected to make a close pass to Earth; it may even come close to outshining the moon.

That particular comet was discovered last September by Russian astronomers and got its name from the International Scientific Optical Network.

Neither Pan STARRS nor ISON pose a threat to Earth, scientists said.

Entertainment Editor Joe Malan and AP aerospace writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story.