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Sky & Telescope News Bulletin - March 23, 1996



Our offices are swamped with reports and pictures of Comet Hyakutake. Typical was the call from Alan Whitman of British Columbia. Early on March 21st he says Comet Hyakutake had a striking blue coma of magnitude 0.7, a condensed starlike core itself brighter than 3rd magnitude, and a naked-eye tail 12 degrees long. The comet passes closest to Earth on the night of March 24th at a distance of 15 million kilometers -- about 40 times the distance to the Moon. Many comets have passed closer than Hyakutake, most recently a pair of visitors in 1983. But none have been so intrinsically bright and so near in more than 400 years. There's now little doubt that the comet will reach at least magnitude 0 over the next few days.

Here's a quick guide for the coming week. On Friday night, March 22nd, the comet is well in the sky up by 9 or 10 p.m. Look east toward the bright star Arcturus. Using your outstretched arm as a guide, the comet will be one fist width to the star's lower left. (As night progresses the comet will wheel higher in the sky until it's almost directly overhead.) Over the next few nights Comet Hyakutake will head north, and by Tuesday, March 26th, you'll find it just a few degrees from Polaris, the North Star, about halfway up in the sky as you face north. In the days thereafter it moves west, and by Friday, the 29th, it's about halfway between Polaris and dazzling Venus high in the west. The comet is getting brighter in an absolute sense as it heads closer to the Sun, but by the end of the week it will be farther from Earth, with moonlight washing out faint details in its coma and tail.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE IS AT ITS BEST THIS WEEK! Don't miss this once-in-a-generation chance to see a relatively bright comet! Tonight the comet is closest to Earth, looking about as large as it will get.

First, find a dark viewing site. To see the comet well -- or perhaps at all -- you'll need to get away from glary outdoor lights and give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. And unless the comet performs very well, you may also need to get out from under the milky glow of light pollution that fills the night sky over heavily populated areas. But the only way to tell will be to go out and look!

After twilight has completely faded out, find the Big Dipper standing on its handle partway up the northeastern sky. Look for the comet less than a fist-width at arm's length to the left or lower left of the Big Dipper's bottom star (the star at the end of the Dipper's handle).

The Dipper and comet rise higher into better visibility later in the evening. By midnight they're nearly overhead when you face northeast, with the comet appearing below the end segment of the Dipper's handle. The Moon sets around then too, darkening the sky.

The best optical instrument for viewing the comet will be a pair of binoculars, recommends Sky & Telescope magazine. The bigger the binoculars' front lenses the better. A telescope provides a narrow-field view that will show only part of the comet at once. If you try a telescope, be sure to use its *lowest* magnification.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE SHOULD BE BRIGHTEST TONIGHT AND TOMORROW! The comet is visible all night in the north. After dark, examine the sky about two fist-widths left of the Big Dipper's handle. (The comet is near the bowl of the much fainter Little Dipper.)

The view will improve late in the evening as the Moon, nearly first quarter, gets low near setting. By midnight the Big Dipper is nearly overhead in the north, and the comet appears about two fist-widths directly below its center.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE IS NEAR POLARIS! Tonight the comet is near the rather dim North Star, Polaris, which is about halfway up the sky due north. To find Polaris in the evening, locate the Big Dipper very high in the northeast to north, almost overhead. Follow the line formed by the front two stars of the Big Dipper's bowl -- called the "Pointers" -- by about three fist-widths at arm's length toward the lower left. (If you're looking later at night, the Pointers point straight down.) Moonlight will interfere with the view to some extent until the first-quarter Moon sets around 1 or 2 a.m. local time.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE. From this date on, early evening is when Comet Hyakutake is highest -- but moonlight is an increasing problem from now until April 5th.

Tonight, if you go out soon after the end of twilight, look about one fist-width at arm's length (or maybe slightly more) to the left of Polaris in the north. (Find Polaris from the Big Dipper as described for yesterday.) The Moon sets around 2 a.m. tonight, leaving a darker sky. If you look at that time or later, the comet is about 1 1/2 fist-widths below Polaris.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE. After twilight ends, look west for dazzlingly bright Venus, the "Evening Star." To Venus's upper right by about three fist-widths at arm's length, spot the bright star Capella. It's not nearly as bright as Venus but brighter than any other star in the area. Venus and Capella will be your landmarks for finding Comet Hyakutake for the next month.

This evening, find the point halfway between Capella and Polaris. Look for the comet a little below that point. It is fading now as it flies Sunward away from Earth.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE. The comet's apparent motion across the sky is lessening each day now. To locate the comet this evening, follow yesterday's instructions.


* NAKED-EYE COMET HYAKUTAKE. Locate Capella soon after nightfall as described above. Look for the comet about two fist-widths at arm's length to Capella's lower right.

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