Moon pairs up with Comet PanSTARRS for big show
Comet PanSTARRS and the crescent moon loom over a mountaintop row of wind turbines near Mojave, Calif., on Tuesday night. The pairing of the comet and the moon made for one of the year's best opportunities for astrophotography.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Two elusive superstars came out on Tuesday evening to greet their adoring fans — in L.A. and Vegas, as well as in California's Mojave Desert and the mountaintops of Arizona and California. As a matter of fact, observers around the world could catch a glimpse of Comet PanSTARRS and the barely lit crescent moon, as long as the skies were clear.
Like most superstars, Comet PanSTARRS doesn't always live up to its advance billing. For months, skywatchers have been looking forward to PanSTARRS as one of the top sights in the night sky. The long-period comet is now thought to be at its brightest, due to the fact that it has just come out of its close approach to the sun. But finding it has proved more difficult than expected, because it's so easily lost in the glare of sunset.
XCOR Aerospace's Mike Massee acknowledged that it wasn't easy to capture his comet shot, which was taken in the last light of dusk from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, where the XCOR rocket venture has its headquarters.
"At 7:20, neither the moon nor the comet were visible, but about five minutes later you could barely make out the sliver of the new moon. According to XCOR's resident astronomy guru, Randall Clague, the comet would appear about eight moon diameters to the left of the moon. So I set up an image with the moon on the right side of the frame and made some exposures," Massee said in an email.
"After a few minutes I could zoom in and see the comet in my camera, but not with the naked eye," he wrote. "As the sky grew darker the comet became more and more visible, and eventually you could just make out a fuzzy spot with your naked eye, but the camera was still the best way to review it after the shot was taken."
Over the next couple of weeks, Comet PanSTARRS will be better positioned for viewing by Northern Hemisphere observers in the western sky after sunset, but each night it's expected to grow dimmer. If there are clear evening skies, grab your binoculars and try to pick out PanSTARRS. This viewing guide can help.
While you're waiting for those dark, clear skies, check out this photo album, which includes a special shout-out to the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter's Adam Block and all those who contributed through NBC News' FirstPerson photo-upload website.
The sunset glow lingers in the skies over Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona as Comet PanSTARRS and the crescent moon shine on Tuesday night. Even the dark portion of the moon glows faintly, due to reflected "Earthshine" from our own planet.
Gene Blevins / ReutersDavid Schaefer of Pasadena, Calif., uses an iPad to help him spot Comet PanSTARRS over Southern California. The comet should be visible from the Northern Hemisphere until the end of March in western skies after sunset.
Gene Blevins / ReutersComet PanSTARRS takes its place next to the waxing crescent moon in the skies over Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Craig Yacks via FirstPerson
Craig Yacks says he took this photo of Comet PanSTARRS (left) and the moon (right) from Highlands Ranch, Colo., "as the clouds opened up just after sunset." The photo was taken with a Nikon D800 camera, set for ISO 1000 with a four-second exposure. "Zoomed in to give a better view of the comet and the moon," Yacks said.
Slideshow: Catch the coolest comets in the cosmos
Cast your eyes on pictures featuring PanSTARRS, Hale-Bopp and other crowd-pleasing comets.
More PanSTARRS photos from FirstPerson fans:
Robert Schmidt from Newport News, Va.: "Comet PanSTARRS over the James River in Newport News. ... Spotty cloud cover made spotting the comet a bit difficult."
John Melson from San Marcos, Calif.: "Comet PanSTARRS and the moon ... from Double Peak Park in San Marcos, taken with a Sony A77 at 7:43 p.m."
Sergei Timofeevski from Carlsbad, Calif.: "Comet PanSTARRS next to young moon over the Pacific Ocean, San Diego, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, March 12, Nikon D7000, 110mm, f5.6, 8-second exposure, ISO 3200."
Richard Dervan, Atlanta, Ga.: "PanSTARRS over midtown Atlanta."
Kathy Newman, Rosamond, Calif.: "PanSTARRS and crescent moon."
Michael Wood, Honolulu, Hawaii: "Comet PanSTARRS over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Oahu, Hawaii."