Commonwealth Journal

March 20, 2013

Heavenly lights put on a show

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

For those unable to see the double light display – comet and aurora borealis – in the heavens Monday night, don’t worry. A better show is coming. 
Late this year, a comet brighter than the world has even seen will be visible day and night from late October until mid-January. Brighter than a full moon, the comet likely will have a long tail, created by solar winds driving particles from the comet’s head (coma).
That can wait. Monday night’s phenomena featured another comet – Pan-STARRS, visible in the low western sky at sunset – and a brilliant display of aurora borealis, or northern lights, that turned the sky reddish pink as far south as Kentucky. 
CBS News reported a display of northern lights from central Minnesota to Colorado on Monday night and there were reports the northern sky took on a reddish-pink glow in parts of Kentucky where the sky was clear. Northern lights are caused by a complicated set of interactions between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.
WLEX-TV, Lexington, published on its website a photograph that Brad Simmons of Perryville took of the aurora borealis display. It showed three large blobs of reddish pink in the northern sky.
Pan-STARRS, a little publicized comet, was brightest March 10 and currently is waning. It can be seen best with binoculars on the horizon immediately after sunset.
Pan-STARRS is particularly interesting because this will be the last chance to see it. Ron Kistler, coordinator of the planetarium at Western Kentucky University, said Pan-STARRS won’t appear again for 100,000 years.
Comet ISON will make us soon forget Comet Pan-STARRS. In August, ISON should become bright enough to be visible through small telescopes or binoculars. By late October or early November it will become visible to the naked eye and remain so until mid-January 2014.
At its brightest on November 28, ISON may be seen in daytime. Only nine other comets dating back to the 17th century have been bright enough to be seen in daylight.
Following a day of heavy rain, a lingering clouds covered Monday night’s light show in this part of Kentucky. A spokesman at the National Weather Service in Jackson said NWS didn’t get any reports of northern lights. Neither did Pulaski County 9-1-1 Communications Center.
Chief Meteorologist Bill Meck at WLEX wrote on the station’s website that he searched for the northern lights. He went up Russell Cave Road about seven miles north of Lexington and saw what he described as a red glow in the sky. However, Meck said that could have been reflections from Cincinnati.