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Posted: March 5, 2013 10:02 p.m.

Comet offers rare opportunity at Varner

Although Halley’s Comet won’t be visible again until 2061, local residents will be able to see a newer comet later this month.

The comet, designated C/2011-L4 PanSTARRS, was discovered in 2011 by the PanSTARRS telescope in Hawaii when it was still faint.

Theo Ramakers, member of the Charlie Elliott Chapter of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, said since the comet is so new there is no way to predict how it will behave or how visible it will be.

“It’s hard to say how bright it will be or what will happen the closer it gets to the sun,” Ramakers said. “I am hopeful it will be as exciting an event as we think it will be.”

The astronomy club has received permission to host a community event at Lake Varner to watch the comet pass March 9 and 10.

The club is encouraging residents to gather before sunset in the parking lot of the lake located off Alcove Road in Covington. Members will be on hand to assist viewers until one hour after sunset.

“People who want to get a good look should bring binoculars if they have them, but no telescopes,” Ramakers said. “Anything more powerful might be dangerous to look through since the sun gets very bright at that time. The comet should be bright enough to see from the naked eye.”

This is an especially active year for astronomy enthusiasts with three comets passing through our atmosphere. Two of these will be nicely visible in the Northern Hemisphere, the other one coming through in November.

C/2011-L4 is part of the Oort Cloud, which reaches as far out as behind the orbit of Pluto. The comet has been visible in the morning hours for the Southern Hemisphere since last week.

Ramakers said on the nights of the club-hosted event, the best chance at catching a glimpse is to look due west of the setting sun.

“It should be very close to the sun at this point and fairly low in the sky,” Ramakers said. “The best way to judge the distance is to use your fist as a unit of measurement. Your fist equals about 10 degrees in the sky, so hold it to the left of the sun and it should give you an approximate area to look.”

If residents miss the initial astronomy club event, another opportunity will be available March 16 at sunset. This viewing will take place at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center’s “Dove Field,” located off Shepard’s Road on County Road 2. Other events might be scheduled as appropriate and weather conditions might affect viewing, so check with http://ceastronomy.org/blog.

Three comets passing through Earth’s orbit in one year is an unusual occurrence. Many factors have gone into making this a high-traffic year in the skies.

“Most of it is just the timing of the orbits, since each one doesn’t vary too much in speed,” Ramakers said. “We are very lucky to be able to see this new comet and look forward to seeing it react with the sun.”

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