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Moon pairs up with Comet PanSTARRS for big show

Mike Massee

Comet PanSTARRS and the crescent moon loom over a mountaintop row of wind turbines near Mojave, Calif., on Tuesday night. The pairing of the comet and the moon made for one of the year's best opportunities for astrophotography.



Two elusive superstars came out on Tuesday evening to greet their adoring fans — in L.A. and Vegas, as well as in California's Mojave Desert and the mountaintops of Arizona and California. As a matter of fact, observers around the world could catch a glimpse of Comet PanSTARRS and the barely lit crescent moon, as long as the skies were clear.


Like most superstars, Comet PanSTARRS doesn't always live up to its advance billing. For months, skywatchers have been looking forward to PanSTARRS as one of the top sights in the night sky. The long-period comet is now thought to be at its brightest, due to the fact that it has just come out of its close approach to the sun. But finding it has proved more difficult than expected, because it's so easily lost in the glare of sunset.

XCOR Aerospace's Mike Massee acknowledged that it wasn't easy to capture his comet shot, which was taken in the last light of dusk from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, where the XCOR rocket venture has its headquarters.

"At 7:20, neither the moon nor the comet were visible, but about five minutes later you could barely make out the sliver of the new moon. According to XCOR's resident astronomy guru, Randall Clague, the comet would appear about eight moon diameters to the left of the moon. So I set up an image with the moon on the right side of the frame and made some exposures," Massee said in an email.

"After a few minutes I could zoom in and see the comet in my camera, but not with the naked eye," he wrote. "As the sky grew darker the comet became more and more visible, and eventually you could just make out a fuzzy spot with your naked eye, but the camera was still the best way to review it after the shot was taken."

Over the next couple of weeks, Comet PanSTARRS will be better positioned for viewing by Northern Hemisphere observers in the western sky after sunset, but each night it's expected to grow dimmer. If there are clear evening skies, grab your binoculars and try to pick out PanSTARRS. This viewing guide can help.

While you're waiting for those dark, clear skies, check out this photo album, which includes a special shout-out to the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter's Adam Block and all those who contributed through NBC News' FirstPerson photo-upload website

Adam Block

The sunset glow lingers in the skies over Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona as Comet PanSTARRS and the crescent moon shine on Tuesday night. Even the dark portion of the moon glows faintly, due to reflected "Earthshine" from our own planet.

Gene Blevins / Reuters

David Schaefer of Pasadena, Calif., uses an iPad to help him spot Comet PanSTARRS over Southern California. The comet should be visible from the Northern Hemisphere until the end of March in western skies after sunset.

Gene Blevins / Reuters

Comet PanSTARRS takes its place next to the waxing crescent moon in the skies over Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Craig Yacks via FirstPerson

Craig Yacks says he took this photo of Comet PanSTARRS (left) and the moon (right) from Highlands Ranch, Colo., "as the clouds opened up just after sunset." The photo was taken with a Nikon D800 camera, set for ISO 1000 with a four-second exposure. "Zoomed in to give a better view of the comet and the moon," Yacks said.

Cast your eyes on pictures featuring PanSTARRS, Hale-Bopp and other crowd-pleasing comets.

More PanSTARRS photos from FirstPerson fans:

Update for 7:15 p.m. ET March 13: So where's Comet PanSTARRS now? It's well below the moon, and you'll need binoculars to spot it. To get a fix on the comet, you can consult this sky chart from SpaceWeather.com.

Wednesday evening's images from Jens Riggelsen in Aarhus, Denmark, illustrate how tricky it can be to see the comet. The moon is high in the sky, but PanSTARRS is just a speck amid the glow of sunset. "The comet wasn't visible to the naked eye, but figured I might be able to capture it with the camera. And indeed, there it was," Riggelsen told SpaceWeather.com.

Can you spot the comet in this brand-new view from Jamie Cooper? 

Jamie Cooper

Comet PanSTARRS is a glimmer in the sky after sunset, far below and to the right of the crescent moon. This picture was taken by Jamie Cooper from Northampton in England on Wednesday.


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log and NBCNews.com's science and space coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.