By Alan Dyer
A bonus observing event from “Year of the Planets,” Alan Dyer’s cover story in the January/February issue of SkyNews
While (as of this writing) no comet is expected to become naked-eye bright in the coming year, we do have the prospect of a well-placed binocular comet in spring.
Comet PanSTARRS C/2017 T2 is the 159th comet discovered by this prolific search telescope in Hawaii. The comet is currently inbound to the Sun, and rounds the Sun at perihelion on May 6 at a distance from the Sun of 1.6 AU (with 1 AU equal to the distance from Earth to the Sun). So this is no sungrazer.
Indeed, as we show here, C/2017 T2’s orbit is highly inclined to the plane of the solar system, the ecliptic, and so passes high above the ecliptic at perihelion. This places the comet high in our earthly northern sky when it is at its brightest. That’s good news.
PanSTARRS might peak at magnitude 7 to 8 in early May as it moves through the indistinct constellation of Camelopardalis. By May 17, the comet officially crosses the boundary into Ursa Major, passing one degree from the bright galaxy pair M81 and M82 on May 23 and 24, for a photo op at New Moon. PanSTARRS then travels through the bowl of the Big Dipper high overhead in early June when it should still shine at about 8th magnitude. So while it might not get bright, PanSTARRS will be well-placed overhead and easy to find.