RIT Professor Catches a Comet by its Tail

Comet Pan-STARRS visible through March

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Grover Swartzlander

Comet Pan-STARRS spotted over Cobb’s Hill Park in Rochester at 8:30 p.m. on March 17.

Rochester Institute of Technology scientist Grover Swartzlander captured a glimpse of comet Pan-STARRS on its journey away from the sun.

Swartzlander set up his Canon 5D II camera at Cobbs Hill Park and took a four-second exposure with his 100-millimeter lens at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 17, recording the comet and a clear evening sky in Rochester.

“It was kind of tricky to get the shot because the comet becomes visible to the eye only a short time after sunset,” says Swartzlander, joint professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. “The sky had to get dark enough. Plus, the comet is low in the sky and could get lost in the glare of light pollution and atmospheric scattering.”

Comet Pan-STARRS—first spotted in June 2011 with its namesake instrument, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System telescope, in Hawaii—will be visible in the northern hemisphere through March.

“Look about 30–40 minutes after sunset toward the western horizon, just a little north of where the sun has set,” Swartzlander suggests. “Your eyes may have to dark-adapt a little, but you should be able to see it if the sky is clear. Binoculars help.”

Don’t wait too long, Swartzlander advises. “You may only have about 10–15 minutes of viewing before the comet sets too low in the sky.”