Tonight is one of a few chances Austinites will have to see a passing comet.
The PAN-STARRS comet, or C/2011 L-4 as it’s known by stargazers, will make its way across the Austin skies around 30 to 40 minutes after sunset tonight – which is at 7:37 p.m, according to the National Weather Service.
Austinites should be able to see the comet with the naked eye for next few nights, but Rebecca Johnson, editor of StarDate Magazine, says the comet will grow dimmer with each passing night and fading out in about three to four days.
Johnson suggests stargazers take advantage of the high visibility tonight, but that the average viewer won’t be able to see everything without some help.
“I would advise folks to go somewhere where you have an unobstructed view of the horizon, with a clear view to the west,” Johnson says. “Binoculars might be a good thing to pull out of the closet, if you’ve got them. You’ll be much better able to see the tail with binoculars.”
Dr. Anita Cochran is one a research scientist at the University of Texas and is assistant director of the McDonald Observatory. She says the comet is as close to Earth as any in recent memory – the same distance from Mercury. But the comet’s proximity isn’t something to worry about.
“This comet was formed four and a half billion years ago –the same time the solar system was formed –and has been sitting out in the deep freeze of space for a long time and something sent it our way,” Cochran says. That something is the gravitational pressures in the galaxy that are like tides, Cochran adds.
So the comet got caught up in an almost galactic tide, was pulled out of a ring of asteroids in our solar system, and then wandered into the center.
Cochran says that the comet is bright but fleeting for those without a big telescope –like the one at McDonald Observatory.
Stargazers are in luck, though. Pan-STARRS may be out of view now, but Comet ISON will be visible this fall, Cochran says.
“Bright comets are not unusual,” Cochran says. “We'd just like to see them more often.”