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Pan-STARRS comet about to star in Northwest's starry skies

Pan-STARRS comet about to star in Northwest's starry skies
This March 2, 2013 photo made available by spaceweather.com shows the comet, Pan-STARRS, seen from Queenstown, New Zealand. (AP Photo/spaceweather.com, Minoru Yoneto)

2013 could go down as the year of the comet with not just one, but two brilliant displays this year.

Comet ISON has been getting much of the attention as it is set to bring perhaps the most spectacular show we've seen in decades when it appears this fall.

But for those who can't wait, consider the upcoming Pan-STARRS comet a nice astronomical appetizer.

Pan-STARRS passed within 100 million miles of Earth on Tuesday, its closest approach in its first-ever cruise through the inner solar system. The ice ball will get even nearer the sun this weekend - just 28 million miles from the sun and within the orbit of Mercury.

The comet has been visible for weeks from the Southern Hemisphere, making for some spectacular photos. Now our half of the world gets a glimpse as well.

The absolute best viewing days should be next Tuesday and Wednesday, when Pan-STARRS appears next to a crescent moon at dusk in the western sky. Until then, glare from the sun will obscure the comet.

California astronomer Tony Phillips said the comet's proximity to the moon will make it easier for novice sky watchers to find it. Binoculars likely will be needed for the best viewing, he said, warning onlookers to avoid pointing them at the setting sun.

"Wait until the sun is fully below the horizon to scan for the comet in the darkening twilight," Phillips advised in an email sent from his home and observatory in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

But as usual with major celestial events, the question around here is -- will the weather cooperate?

As of right now, it's not looking very good, but there is a ray of hope.

A series of weather systems are pegged to move through the Northwest early next week, and this is the forecasted cloud cover for Monday night. Not very promising:



Prospects are a little better for Tuesday night which at least might have clearing spots.



Unfortunately, the comet will begin to fade away as the March progresses and by the end of the month, will be too faint to find unless you've got access to major telescopes. But as it does so, keep looking in the western skies just after sunset. It'll be close to the moon through the 14th and then the comet swings above the star Algenib on March 17/18, and above the star Alpheratz on March 25/26, according to EarthSky.org



Here is more information on Pan-STARRS:



As we mentioned, this will be just a warm up to the big Comet ISON show expected from October to December. That comet could be as bright as the full moon and perhaps even visible during the daylight hours. Just have to hope for a clear day or three in there as well.

And as always, if you get lucky and find yourself in a clear spot and get some photos of the comet, we'd love to see them. You can submit them to our YouNews site

More Information:

NASA's site on Pan-STARRS

SpaceWeather.com

EarthSky.org

Associated Press Aerospace writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this report