Hunting Comet PanSTARRS | Learn Astronomy HQ

Hunting Comet PanSTARRS

The last comet that was visible to the naked eye that I remember seeing was Halley's comet when I was a young boy back in 1986. The image of that comet has stuck with me for all those years. With that image in mind I was determined to observe and photograph Comet PanSTARRS. It turned out to be a little more tricky than expected. Here is an account of the whole experience.

Too Eager

Comet PanSTARRS was at perihelion on March 10th. This is when the comet is closest to the Sun and at its brightest. Unfortunately, the comet was still in the Southern Hemisphere at this time. The next night the comet had entered the northern hemisphere but it was going to be really tough to see as it was so low to the horizon. I watched the western horizon closely at dusk. I couldn't quite believe it but a comet shaped and sized object appeared in the low horizon. It was in line with the setting sun and descending at about the same speed as the sun. I quickly grabbed my camera and just managed a shot. This was the result:

Fake Comet.jpg

I was very dubious that this was it. It didn't look like any pictures of comets I had seen before. I posted it on the facebook page to see what people thought. It was quickly identified as a plane's contrails. Oh well, try again tomorrow.

March 12th - Best Observing Night

March 12th was considered to be the best viewing day for the comet. As it was still pretty bright and a bit higher in the sky. So armed with the NASA guide below I headed out to a hilltop with a clear view of the western horizon.


I arrived way too early, the wind was very strong and the wind chill ridiculously cold. Still I settled in and took this shot of the sunset which I quite liked as it portrays solar, wind and coal energy all in one shot.

Solar wind pylons DSC 0612.jpg

The sun set at about 6.10pm……..nothing………30 minutes later….nothing. Heavy clouds were moving in and the hot coffee was drained. Then just before 7pm this beautiful and magical new crescent moon revealed itself.

New crescent moon DSC 0624.jpg

Still no comet. I had heard that it was difficult to see. It was low in the sky mixed up in the light from the setting sun, with a short stubby tail and only about magnitude 2. This was going to be hard to spot. Still, armed with the NASA map and now renewed by the appearance of the crescent moon I thought I was in with a chance. 

The moon's crescent appearance looked like a smug smile in the night sky. As if it knew it was going to give away the comet's position and sure enough it was the key to finding the comet. At about 7.10pm an hour after the sunset the comet made it's appearance. The comet was too dim to see with the naked eye, but armed with a 55-300mm telephoto lens on the DSLR made the comet appear clearly in the view finder at only a modest 100mm focal length. There it was!


Just like the NASA map had shown it would be.


So here it is, comet PanSTARRS. First identified in Maui, Hawaii in June 2011 when it was only an incredibly dim magnitude 19. It has slowly brightened during its long journey from the distant Oort cloud and is next due to pass Earth in 110,000 years.

I used the method found on the how to image a comet post to take the pictures. The wind was so strong that the camera shake was noticeable on anything over a second in exposure length.

Panstarrs closeup DSC 0640

The  camera settings for the photo above were ISO 200, Focal length 300mm, f/5.6 and 1/2 second exposure. The brightness and contrast needed boosting to lighten the image enough.

Here it is when zoomed.

Panstarrs vcloseup DSC 0640.jpg

And this one is 280mm, shutter speed 1.6 sec, ISO 200 and f/5.6


A successful comet hunt and very rewarding. With the fake comet, magical moon, freezing wind, beautiful sunset and threatening clouds the hunt was great fun and I can't wait for the next one in November. Comets like these are estimated to come around once every 5 - 10 years. However, this year could be special with the much anticipated arrival of the potential super comet, ISON. Roll on November.

If you take any pictures of comet PanSTARRS please post them. Good luck and happy hunting.

Related Posts: Observing, Astrophotography, Full Length

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