PanSTARRS peeks through Seattle clouds

Persistence in the face of clouds has paid off for a number of Seattle-area stargazers, including your faithful correspondent, who have managed to spot comet PanSTARRS over the last couple of days.

As sunset approached yesterday things were looking hopeful in the west from West Seattle, though there were clouds building on the horizon. Seattle Astronomy dashed down to the south end of Alki Beach Park, near the Charles Richey Sr. Viewpoint, to hunt for PanSTARRS. Binoculars in hand, I swept the areas between the clouds and–Eureka!–finally spotted the comet, probably around 8:10 p.m., as I posted this tweet at 8:17:

I am still amazed at the little gasp of discovery I get whenever I spot a new celestial object, or even familiar ones. I probably had 10 minutes of viewing, maybe a little more, before PanSTARRS was swallowed up by a large black cloud, not to be seen again. It was a pretty sight, with a definite tail shooting up maybe a degree or two. I would rank it my second-best ever city comet, after the spectacular McNaught of 2007, which was spotted under similar circumstances between clouds that year.

I was not able to see PanSTARRS with the naked eye yesterday, though I expect had there been just a few more minutes for it to get a little darker, I could have. I may try again this evening; as I write this, a little after noon, the sky is mostly clear. But a lot can change between now and sunset, about six hours hence.

This Sky & Telescope diagram and article are a good guide for viewing Comet PanSTARRS, at least for the next few days.

This Sky & Telescope diagram and article are a good guide for viewing Comet PanSTARRS, at least for the next few days.

March 16 was the scheduled date for the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s monthly public star parties and, as often happens, both were officially canceled because of the weather. There were, however, reports on the club’s Google GroupĀ Through the Clouds that an ad hoc group ditched the usual star party site at Green Lake and spotted PanSTARRS from Sunset Hill Park. Other club members wrote in and reported sightings from Redondo Beach in Des Moines, the Des Moines Marina, Lowman Beach Park in West Seattle, and Hazlewood Elementary School in Newport Beach.

Sorin, the Soggy Astronomer, posted several photos from the evening on his Flickr stream. Jason Enevoldsen caught a photo the day before, posted by his spouse on her Alice’s Astro Info site. The Enevoldsens were planning to be down at Seattle’s Lincoln Park last night, though we’ve received no dispatches as of this moment. I offer these photos as proof we’re not just making this up. Seattle Astronomy’s iPhone camera was not up to this task; the pic I shot of the cloud that ate the comet is just a black square.

So, keep hunting, Seattle comet seekers! It can be done. PanSTARRS is getting further from the Sun, and thus fainter, each day. But good views should be had for a while yet.

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