Zero Dark Thirty

Observation notes from early morning of Wednesday, March 20, 1996

I awoke at about 4:50 am, a time to which people who don't like to get up early refer to as "zero dark thirty". The wind was howling around the house like some lost soul. With all this wind, I thought maybe the cloudy skies had "blown" clear. I was ready for another glimpse of Comet Hyakutake. I staggered to the living room door and peered out with my sleepy eyes. Antares, the heart of Scorpius, blazed brightly. I quickly throw on what clothes I could find in the dark, grabbed my 10x50 binoculars, and stepped outside.

It definitely was cold and windy, but the stars were shining. I hadn't looked at any starcharts in days so I wasn't quite sure where Comet Hyakutake might be. I look up above Libra, and WOW!!! Comet Hyakutake is BIG, BRIGHT, and BEAUTIFUL!!! No more finder charts for me. I've never estimated magnitude before, but I figure it is around magnitude 3 at least. I could easily see it, and without averted vision. My directions for finding the comet for my non-astronomer friends will be easy...."face the right direction, and look up until you see a comet". Since my last observation, the comet has moved about 16 degrees.

Up came the binoculars to my eyes, and again, WOW!!! There is an extremely condensed nucleus, looking starlike. The coma is very large. It was hard to tell where the coma ended, but I'd estimate its size at anywhere from 30 to 45 arc-minutes. Definitely starting to get huge. The faint tail seems as wide as the coma, and gets wider the further back you get. It streams back in a westerly direction right between two stars in Virgo of magnitude 3.8 and 5.5. I could definitely see at least 2 degrees of the tail, and suspect if I had darker skies I could see a little more (plus more of the coma). Although the tail is visible, it is quite faint so city observers will want to get to country skies for better views.

I set up a camera on a tripod for some quick shots. I noticed some "clouds" coming in from the south, and it was really cold, so I didn't try anything fancy. I'm just getting started with photography, so I just tried various exposures (i.e. 10, 20, 30 seconds), and used a 50mm and a 28mm lens. I don't know what to expect because the wind was really bad and I'm not sure about my "aiming" (I was really cold and shivering!!!). Just before going back inside, I realized that the "clouds" where of the galactic type in Sagittarius. Even with moderate light pollution, I still can see the brighter portions of the Milky Way. A meteor flashed just below Sagittarius. I did a 30 second exposure of the region, and called it a night (or morning).

If you haven't done so already, get out and observe Comet Hyakutake. You will NOT be disappointed.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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