On April 1st Comet Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) passed its closest to the Sun when 137 million km (0.91 a.u.) away and traveling 44 km per second. S&T contributing editor John Bortle reports that the comet is magnitude -0.5. Its twin tails, pointing northward, are each nearly 20 degrees long as viewed from his dark-sky site. This is the last full week you can view Hale-Bopp at its peak without interference from the Moon, which returns to the evening sky in the coming days. For the best views, look at least 1-1/4 hours after sunset when the sky is completely dark. Comet Hale-Bopp should be obvious about 20 to 30 degrees above the northwestern horizon (depending on your latitude).
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 around the comet's nucleus.
The farther north you are, the higher the comet will appear. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere miss out until late April or May.
The eclipsing variable star Algol (just to the upper left of Comet Hale-Bopp's head) should be at its minimum brightness, magnitude 3.4 instead of its usual 2.1, for a couple of hours centered on 7:03 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (convert to your time zone). Algol takes several additional hours to rebrighten.
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