Without doubt, Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) is an obvious sight in the evening sky for any viewer in the Northern Hemisphere. On April 1st it comes closest to the Sun, a point 137 million km (0.91 a.u.) away, while moving 44 km per second. The comet's coma has brightened to better than magnitude -0.5, and its pearly dust tail is much more evident now that moonlight is no longer in competition. Although Hale- Bopp can still be seen before dawn, it's really at its best in the evening sky. The comet's starlike inner coma can even be seen in twilight. But the tail, which points to the right, is most obvious at least 1-1/4 hours after sunset when the sky has become completely dark. Look about 20 degrees above the northwestern horizon.
Comet Hale-Bopp drew worldwide attention unexpectedly last week when a group in California committed mass suicide. Apparently its members believed the comet was a long-awaited "marker" signalling them into action. Historians note that comets have been associated with death, disease, and other calamities for thousands of years. Several such episodes are chronicled in "Comets That Changed the World," an article by astronomer Bradley E. Schaefer in SKY & TELESCOPE's May issue.
Any light pollution in your sky will diminish what you can see of the comet's tail. But its head is bright enough to show even through bad city light pollution. Binoculars will give a grand view under any conditions. A good amateur telescope shows a wealth of bright detail -- arcs and jets -- around the comet's nucleus. Don't miss this rare event!
The farther north you are, the higher the comet will appear. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere miss out until late April or May.
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