Night Of The Comet

Observing notes from Friday, March 22, 1996

Friday night was definitely the night of Comet Hyakutake. The comet put on an awesome celestial display for any observer who took even a quick glance at the evening sky. The Raleigh Astronomy Club and many others gathered along the south eastern shore of Lake Jordan for an evening of star gazing (or more like comet gazing). I set up with a few club members just after sunset around 7:00 PM. A thin crescent Moon hung in the western sky along with brilliant jewel in its own right, Venus. I was observing with my 8" SCT equipped with a 6.3 focal reducer. The field was covered with telescopes of various shapes and sizes. Everything from binoculars, to homemade Dobsonians, to completely computer controlled Schmidt-Cassegrains. Everybody was dressed like Eskimos. It was mighty cold, and the local weatherman was issuing a freeze warning for farmers.

Waiting on Comet Hyakutake to rise, we socialized and viewed the various other objects in the sky. The sliver of a Moon offered a few craters to see. Venus, with its 55% phase dazzled some observers. I probed the stellar nursery known as M42, the Orion Nebula. A neighbor showed me M108, an elongated galaxy in Ursa Major. She was using a homemade 8" Dobsonian, finely crafted. I cruised the thirty-something clusters in Gemini and Auriga (M35, M36, M37, M38). Lastly, just to make sure I saw something new on this observing session, I gazed upon the globular cluster M3 in Bootes. At magnitude 6.3, and a size of about 16 arc-minutes, hundreds of stars are visible in this ball of stars. I observed with a neighbor's 10" Dobsonian. Quite a beautiful sight.

By the way, I was sporting a new little tool for getting around in the dark. For illumination, I use a Mini-Mag flashlight covered with a red filter. I also have a device on the end of it that allows me to hold it with my teeth. This works nicely in the short run, but after a while that little flashlight gets heavy and of course it is kind of hard to swallow with a flashlight in your mouth (i.e. I drool more than my baby girl). I purchased a headband holder for the flashlight. The flashlight is held at the side of the head, and where ever you look, that's where the flashlight points. It's much more convenient than holding the light with my teeth. The only side effect is that now I look like a Borg from Star Trek's Next Generation. I think I surprised more than a few observers when I walked up on them with my glowing red eye. You will be assimilated.....resistance is futile.....

But now, the star of the show, Comet Hyakutake was getting above the tree line. It was big and bright, easily a magnitude 2 or maybe even approaching magnitude 1. The higher it got, the more of its tail you could trace. By the end of the observing session, we could definitely see at least 14 degrees of the tail, a fact I confirmed with my EZCosmos software once I got home. It stretched way back, like a silvery stream against the black sky. The nucleus of the comet was located near the star Izar in Bootes. The tail stretched way past Arcturus, at least to Muphrid and Upsilon-Bootes.

Under telescopic scrutiny, the nucleus displayed a large jet emanating out the back, in the direction of the tail. Myself, and a couple of others though we saw a jet up in front of the comet, but nothing we could be sure of. This comet was moving fast. At one time the nucleus passed very near a star. I could literally see the nucleus moving pass the star, in real time!!!

In my opinion, the best view of the comet was with the unaided eye, followed closely by binoculars. Telescopes gave great close-ups of the nucleus, but you really can't take in the entire beauty of the comet with such a narrow field of view. Some observers sat back and gazed, some were using binoculars, while still others were glued to the eyepiece. You could hear camera shutters clicking over the field of observers like mechanical crickets.

During the night, our observing group saw many, MANY meteors. Some people joked it was from Comet Hyakutake. I wonder if we will actually pick up a few meteors from this icy visitor???

This was a great observing session. The best part was sharing the sky with so many other enthusiasts. If you haven't observed Comet Hyakutake yet, you better hurry. The Great Comet of 1996 won't be around for much longer.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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