Star Light, Star Bright… Wait! That’s a Comet!

Image credit: NASA.gov

Image credit: NASA.gov

I don’t know a lot about astronomy, but I do love to look at the stars. In grade school, we learned many constellations and the stories behind them. My dad loved looking for the planets and used to point out Mars, Jupiter and some constellations for me when I was a kid. Even though I live in an extremely light-polluted area, I still love to hunt for seasonally-visible constellations, and do my best to catch the occasional meteor shower. This year, we will get a couple of rare treats if we’re lucky. There are two comets that will be visible to the naked eye! Apparently, experts say that we are usually lucky to catch a comet with the naked eye only once every five or ten years! One is traveling close to Earth right now called C/2011 L4 a.k.a. PANSTARRS because it was discovered in June of 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope (source: Wikipedia). Your best chance to see it may be March 12 because it is not that bright. If you want to try to catch it, experts say you should look close to the western horizon just after sunset. You might have better luck with binoculars or a telescope, but if you’re lucky, you can catch it with your own two eyes!

If you miss out on C/2011 L4 you might get a second chance in late November when C/2012 S1 a.k.a ISON (discovered in 2012 by the International Scientific Optical Network) enters perihelion (i.e., makes its closest approach to the sun). To learn more about C/2012 S1, check out this cool Infographic at space.com.

If you want to learn more about the stars, I highly recommend visiting http://solarsystem.nasa.gov. It has lots of cool pictures, easy to understand articles and educational resources! I’ll leave you with this neat video that describes exactly where to look for these comets. It also describes the Rosetta Mission, which is attempting to orbit and land on a comet! Happy stargazing.

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

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