Hyakutake: The Great "Earthgrazing" Comet of 1996
Hail, Hale-Bopp, and Farewell
Comet McNaught: The Twilight Wonder
Comet West: My First Great Comet
Bill Bradfield Strikes Again
The Extraordinary Outburst of Comet 17P/Holmes | SOHO/Near-Sun Comet News and Views
I don't care about the naming of the comet. If many people could enjoy
that comet, that is the happiest thing for me.
-- Yuji Hyakutake, 1996
Comet Hyakutake as photographed by Michael O’Gara on the morning of
March 27, 1996, with his Minolta with 50 mm lens, guided on the comet’s
head for approximately 1 minute, using Kodak 800 film. Copyright Michael
O’Gara, used by permission. [The photo was taken at almost the same time
that the drawing below was made, approximately 07:50 UT March 27.]
Comet Hyakutake as drawn by Bruce Kamiat on the morning of March 27, 1996,
over a copy of Tirion’s “Sky Atlas 2000”. From the artist’s notes: The view is
slightly distorted due to the flat projection of the chart. Artistic license was used
to preserve the appearance of the tail; its tip is thus displaced east by several minutes
of RA; it actually appeared to fade out in the middle of the Big Dipper’s bowl.
This would have required giving the tail a curved appearance. The tail appeared
quite straight, as shown here. Copyright Bruce Kamiat; used by permission.
In early 1996, as the world anxiously awaited the arrival of
—discovered the previous summer at a record distance from the Sun
and still over a year away from perihelion—another comet appeared
that soon become one of the most spectacular of the Twentieth Century.
On January 30, 1996, Yuji Hyakutake of Hayato, Japan discovered his
second comet, an 11th magnitude glow in Libra, in giant (150mm) Fujinon
binoculars. He had found his first comet, C/1995 Y1 (Hyakutake) in
nearly the same position in the sky just five weeks earlier, on
Christmas Day, 1995.
Orbital calculations showed that within two months, the new
comet—designated C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake)—would pass a mere
0.102 AU, or 15 million km, from Earth, and would be superbly placed
for Northern Hemisphere viewers when at its closest, passing through
Bootes and Ursa Major and very near Polaris, just half a degree from
the North Celestial Pole and visible all night. It would reach
perihelion on May 1, 1996, at 0.23 AU from the Sun. All this combined
to make astronomers optimistic that the comet would perform
well—the main worry was that the comet might be intrinsically
faint and be a washout despite the positive factors. This proved not to
be the case, and Hyakutake put on a show that will be remembered for a
long time, hanging in the sky all night with a large, blue-green head
and a long, straight gas tail that appeared to swing like a searchlight
as the heavens rotated over the course of the night. Many observers who
saw both Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp from dark-sky locations have asserted
that Hyakutake was decidedly more impressive.
I first saw Comet Hyakutake at around 2 a.m. on March 11, 1996, in my
7x50 binoculars. It was then below Alpha Librae, a quite obvious
fuzzball even from my light-stricken Brooklyn, NY neighborhood and
despite a nearby third-quarter Moon. By March 16, I could just make it
out with the naked eye. My description: “Bright central coma,
more ghostly outer coma, no sign yet of tail.”
I spent Friday night, March 22, with friends on City Island in the
Bronx; we went out in the early evening and could briefly make out the
bright head of the comet amid the clouds. We were thinking of driving
north into Westchester County or Connecticut if it cleared, but it
stayed cloudy past midnight. I woke up around 3 a.m. and stepped
outside to find the sky had cleared and the bright, fuzzy head of the
comet hung nearly overhead. I quickly got dressed and walked out to a
nearby boatyard, where I watched the comet, second magnitude or
brighter and with a degree or two of tail visible, as it passed by
Epsilon Boötis, north of Arcturus.
I spent the next two nights in Westport, Connecticut. Each night there
were clouds in the early evening, and then a clearing before midnight.
I remember thinking, when I walked out into the driveway after it had
cleared on Saturday and got a good look at the comet, that this was the
comet I had waited 20 years to see. (I had seen Comet West in 1976,
and wondered if I would ever again see its like.) It hung nearly
overhead, sporting a greenish-tinted head and narrow, straight tail. I
took a long walk through my hometown with that awesome comet high in
the sky. The next night was similar; I showed Hyakutake to my mother
(who thanks to me has seen more comets than many astronomer types), and
then walked beneath the comet, whose central condensation was as bright
as Spica and which overall was nearly zero magnitude. Saturday night I
saw about 7 degrees of tail; Sunday it stretched about a dozen degrees,
and there was one tantalizing moment when I could see about twice that.
The night of March 26-27 I was back in Brooklyn, and viewed the comet
from Prospect Park. It appeared as a fuzzy patch very close to Polaris,
and of comparable brightness. (Observers at dark-sky sites had a far
more spectacular view as it hung near the pole with its tail near
maximum length. The photo and the drawing that accompany this article
were made that night.)
I got my last view of Hyakutake in early April from Washington Square
Park in Manhattan; it was then very difficult to the unaided eye amid
the glare of streetlights. All told, I saw the comet on about 15
nights, a dozen naked-eye sightings including 10 from light-stricken
Astronomers were hoping that the comet would brighten again as it approached perihelion, but this was not to happen.
Sadly, Yuji Hyakutake passed away on April 10, 2002, at age 51 of an aortic aneurysm.
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