Pan-STARRS comet provides spectacular views for some

Comet passes close to Earth

INDIANAPOLIS - If you live in Indiana, you haven't had a good chance to see it, but many in North America got a spectacular view of a comet whizzing by Earth this week.

The recently discovered Pan-STARRS comet passed with 100 million miles of Earth on March 5 in its first-ever cruise through the inner solar system, closer than it's ever been, and stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere finally got to see it.

The comet has been visible for weeks from the Southern Hemisphere.

There's still a chance to see it in Indiana if the skies clear. The best viewing days are Tuesday and Wednesday, when the comet appears next to a crescent moon at dusk in the western sky.

A crowd of 80 to 100 people gathered in San Angelo, Texas, on Tuesday to view the comet. With clear skies, conditions were nearly perfect.

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.

Pan-STARRS' name is actually an acronym for the Hawaiian telescope used to spot it two years ago: the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. The volcano-top telescope is on constant prowl for dangerous asteroids and comets that might be headed our way.

Thought to be billions of years old, the comet originated in the distant Oort cloud -- a cloud of icy bodies well beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto -- and somehow got propelled toward the inner solar system. It's never passed by Earth before, Phillips said.

A much brighter comet show, meanwhile, is on the way.

Comet ISON may come close to outshining the moon in November. It was discovered last September by Russian astronomers and got its acronym name from the International Scientific Optical Network.

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