If you miss the comet Panstarrs in the next few nights between 7 and 7:45 p.m. just above the western horizon, you’ll have to wait a bit for another chance.
Let’s say, 110,000 years.
Fortunately, it’s not yet too late — although the enigmatic ball of ice is fading fast as it pulls away from Earth at vast speeds, according to astronomer Padraig Houlahan, assistant administrator at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
Several Roundup readers sent in images of the comet taken on Tuesday off Highway 260 where they had a clear view all the way to the horizon directly to the west. The comet will remain visible to the naked eye for the next few nights, although astronomers recommend taking along binoculars to get a good view.
Look one or two palm widths above the horizon directly west starting at about 7 p.m. By 7:45 p.m., the comet will have slipped below the horizon. A line or trees or even a modest nearby hill will likely block a view of the comet in the narrow window between when it gets dark enough to see it and when it passes below the horizon, said Houlahan.
Astronomers think that comets are anywhere from about 100 yards to 30 miles across and composed mostly of ices. They’re actually covered with a dry, dark crust — most likely as black as tar. However, jets of gas blast through that surface as they approach the sun and enter the solar wind of ionized particles. The blast of solar ions drives the jets, which spew out a bright, reflective halo of particles and a 100 million-mile-long tail.
Astronomers, who discovered the comet in 2011, say that Panstarrs has a bright “coma” 75,000 miles wide.
Most comets come from a vast cloud of material left over from the formation of the solar system orbiting the sun half-way to the nearest star or another field of debris beyond the orbit of Neptune. Comets also have a rich variety of organic compounds — the stuff of life. Those compounds include methanol, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, ethanol, ethane. Evidence suggests comets also harbor some of the chemicals that form the DNA genetic blueprints of all living things, including adenine and guanine.
Some astronomers speculate that a rain of comets early in the formation of the solar system might have seeded the Earth with both water and the organic compounds needed for life.
This could be Panstarr’s first