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Sky & Telescope News Bulletin - March 30, 1996



The excitement over Comet Hyakutake steamrolled across the Northern Hemisphere last week as millions of people peered skyward to get a glimpse of this celestial visitor. Many "comet parties" hosted by local astronomy clubs were mobbed by hundreds of eager comet seekers. While city-bound observers had to endure the scourge of light pollution, the bright coma was nevertheless visible to the naked eye. Those in dark skies, however, were witnesses to a spectacular show. Observers report a tail dozens of degrees long.

Professional astronomers were eagerly observing too. A battery of ground- and space-based telescopes were turned toward the comet during its 9.5-million-mile closest approach to the Earth. Radio waves were bounced off its coma in the hopes of measuring the size of the nucleus, and the Hubble Space Telescope tracked the fast-moving interloper and imaged erupting jets of gas and dust.

The comet is fading now as it flies Sunward, away from Earth. Although it is well visible to the naked eye in the northwestern sky after sunset, the Moon will hamper views. This week, the comet will be slipping through the constellation Camelopardalis and into Perseus. On Friday night, the comet is about three fist-widths to Capella's lower right. By late evening the comet is directly right of the star. Over the weekend, the comet is two or three fist-widths to Capella's lower right. Look early; the moonlight will become unavoidable. And during the first days of April, look about two fist-widths to the lower right of Capella and almost three fist-widths to the right or upper right of Venus. The moderately bright star near the comet these nights is Alpha Persei, also known as Mirfak. While you're out there with binoculars checking out the comet, don't miss a look at Venus, because it will be right next to the Pleiades star cluster.


* SEE COMET HYAKUTAKE. After twilight ends, look west for dazzlingly bright Venus, the "Evening Star." Hold your fist out at arm's length and sight past your fist with one eye. Look about three fist-widths to Venus's upper right to find 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, look for the comet about two fist-widths to Capella's lower right shortly after dark. Try binoculars!

Be sure to 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. It will also help 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!


* SEE COMET HYAKUTAKE. Although the comet is shrinking and fading, its head may start becoming more sharply defined, a process that should continue through late April as the comet flies sunward. A comet's tail always points in the direction away from the Sun; currently the Sun is below the west-northwestern horizon at nightfall. This means the tail will extend upward, leaning a little to the right, for the rest of the month.

This evening and for the next few evenings, look for the comet about two fist-widths to the lower right of Capella and three fist-widths to the right or upper right of Venus. The modestly bright star near the comet these nights is Alpha Persei, also known as Mirfak.


* Try some constellation spotting in addition to comet spotting. Find bright Venus in the west in early evening. Look about one fist-width left of Venus for the fainter orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Two fists farther left is the three-star Belt of Orion. Two fists farther left still is bright white Sirius, the brightest true star in the sky.


* KEEP FOLLOWING COMET HYAKUTAKE with binoculars. For the next week you'll find the comet two fist-widths to the right of Venus, or possibly a little lower depending on the date and your location. The moderately bright (2nd-magnitude) star near the comet's head from April 7th to 11th is Algol, or Beta Persei. During the coming week the comet should be at its minimum brightness for April; we can hope for a rebrightening later in the month.


* The eclipsing variable star Algol, near Comet Hyakutake, undergoes one of its periodic dimmings early this evening. Normally magnitude 2.1, Algol should be magnitude 3.4 for a couple of hours centered on 6:40 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It will take several additional hours to rebrighten.

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