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A year from now, it is possible that "comet fever" will be running high when a newfound comet emerges into view in the evening sky. But while some scientists have high hopes for a spectacular 2013 sky show by the comet, it is still far from certain.
The comet was christened C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Comets are usually named after their discoverers, but in this case a large team of observers, computer scientists, and astronomers was involved, so the comet was named after the telescope.
PANSTARRS stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System. It's a 1.8-meter prototype for a quartet of military-funded telescopes that astronomers hope to build on the lip of the extinct volcano Haleakala.
How bright could Comet PANSTARRS get?
Just how bright Comet PANSTARRS will ultimately be still cannot be reliably predicted.
Estimates (or maybe really "guesstimates") suggest that at perihelion on March 9, the comet might become as bright as zero magnitude, placing it in the same rank as the stars Arcturus, Vega and Capella; which are some of the brightest stars in the sky. Thereafter, the comet's rapid northward motion, owing to its orbital inclination of 84 degrees to the plane of the solar system will gradually carry it away from the sun and into the western evening sky.
Skywatching treat of comet PANSTARRS
On successive evenings in March 2013, comet PANSTARRS will grow fainter, it will continue to get farther from the sun, setting later and visible in a darker sky. During April, the comet will become well placed for observing with small telescopes; on the evenings of April 2 and 3 it will be sliding within a couple of degrees of the Great Andromeda Galaxy.
By mid-April the comet will become circumpolar — that is, it will remain above the horizon all night as seen from mid-northern latitudes; during late April it will appear to pass through the famous "W" of Cassiopeia.