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2013 -The Year of the Comet (was Comets)..?

At the end of last year astronomers amateur and professional alike were almost weeing themselves with excitement at the prospect of there not being just one but two bright naked eye comets to look forward to in 2013. Comet PANSTARRS, due to shine in the northern hemisphere’s sunset sky in mid-March, was shaping up to be another Hale-Bopp, and Comet ISON was showing all the signs of being a truly Great Comet, with a “You must be kidding! Look at THAT!” length tail, maybe even bright enough to be seen in the daytime sky too. Yep, 2013 was looking like being The Year of The Comets…!

We might have to change that to Comet, because PANSTARRS is not brightening as quickly or as much as it would be doing if it was going to become “another Hale-Bopp”. Lots of people are now observing the comet regularly, and when their observations of its brightnes are plotted on a graph it is definitely behind schedule, and I’m actually worried that if its current level of brightening holds then it might actually be quite challenging to see in the sky after sunset in mid-March without some kind of help, by using binoculars or a telescope I mean.

This might be disappointing, but it’s not a huge surprise, and responsible astronomers and astronomy writers have been warning people from the start that this might happen. Past comets which have promised to put on good shows have laughed at us and fizzled out when they stepped onto the stage for real, and PANSTARRS might be one of those teases. Of course, the comet could just be playing with us, and waiting to brighten properly until it’s closer to the Sun, in which case we might yet be treated to lovely views of Hale-Bopp 2 this March, we’ll have to wait and see. It’s too late to know for sure yet, so let’s be optimistic – and cross our fingers! And hope that instead of this…

Panstarrs March 13th Kendal

… we get this

Panstarrs March 13th Kendal best

Two bright naked eye comets in the same year did seem a bit greedy, rather too good to be true. It probably was. But even if PANSTARRS isn’t another Hale-Bopp it will provide us all with a fantastic dress rehearsal for ISON, and will allow us all to prepare for ISON’s arrival by scouting-out an optimum observing location, practising how to observe comets and, of course, practising how to *photograph* them, so let’s have no wailing or gnashing of teeth! :-)

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