Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS has recently brightened up a bit over the last few days. This surprise, small increase in brightness should help improve the chances of seeing this comet in twilight.
The comet's head or coma has shrunk down in size or condensed inward. This has made the head a bit smaller and more round looking or "star like". It is hoped that this condensation of the coma will help brighten the comet up. If the comet continues to slowly brighten as predicted due to the recent changes then the comet should reach about +2.0 magnitude on 10 March 2013. At that time the brightest part of the coma is predicted to be as bright as Polaris "The North Star"
The tail of the comet has also changed. The "V" shaped tail is now fading into a single, thinner tail. Unfortunately the current comet activity has failed to increase the tail's size. The comet's tail is not uniform in brightness. The tail dims down as it get further away from the coma.
Some observers in the Southern Hemisphere have reported that the small increase in brightness has helped the comet to be better seen in hand held binoculars. The comet has been seen in hand held binoculars as small as 10 X 50. In this size binocular, the comet appears to be about 5 minute of arc in width and about 1 degree long (from head to tail). A close approximation of the comet's current size can be demonstrated by holding a US Dime Coin at arm's length. The width of the comet is about the thickness of the Dime at arm's length and the comet's length can be represented by the Dime diameter seen at arm's length. As you can see from this representation, the comet is rather small in size.
Views through Giant Binoculars such as 25 X 100; the comet appears to have a yellowish tint to it and has a tail about 2 degrees long.
There are a few scattered reports of sharp eyed individuals being able to see the comet with the unaided eye just before it sets above the horizon. Viewing the comet at that time will give the opportunity to see the comet in a slightly darker sky with less twilight interference.
Best Chances To See the Comet:
For the General Public, the best chance to see this comet will still be on 12th and 13th of March. Hand held binoculars will be a very great help in finding the comet using the Crescent Moon as a guide. On 12th March the comet will be just left of a very thin crescent Moon (about 30 minutes after Sunset, very low in the West). The next evening 13th of March, the Crescent Moon will be high above the comet. Binoculars mounted on a tripod or other support will help you steady the view and allow you to sweep or search for the comet.
The slight increase in brightness may help the comet to be located in hand held binoculars. Despite the recent changes, the comet remains a binocular object due to its small size. Binoculars will give you the best chance to find and view the comet. Comets tend to fickle, so this comet could easily shed its brightness and shrink in size rather quickly. Let's hope the weather will cooperate so we can get a chance to see this comet.
If there are any more changes with the Comet; more updates will be posted on this website.
Gary T. Nowak
Vermont Astronomical Society