Sunday, March 2, 1997
As I was viewing Comet Hale-Bopp this morning, it occurred to me that
extreme brightness may actually hinder people from enjoying an almost
"once in a lifetime" astronomical event to the fullest. Please let me
I have been watching comets since the 70's, when I spotted the somewhat over sold Comet Kohoutek. In the past I always waited for a moonless night and drove miles and miles away from city lights in order to see what looked like a blurry egg in my binoculars. Not a very impressive sight, but somehow exciting just the same.
Last year, Comet Hyakutake was a lovely exception to the "blurry egg" norm. Those of us who were lucky enough to be under a clear, dark sky on the evening of closest approach were treated to a wonderful display: A bright star-like coma and long complex tail sweeping across half the sky like a beautiful girl's long hair blowing in some cosmic wind. This sight was only available one or two nights and from a very dark location. From my back yard in Midtown-Wichita, the comet was just a dim star, a blurry egg when viewed through binoculars, with a little mouse tail.
This morning [March 2, 1997] after viewing the Hale-Bopp from a dark location and noting that even in the bright moonlight it had developed nicely in the past two weeks of cloudy weather, I drove to my wife's place of employment to pick her up. I instinctively looked up and was surprised to see that even with the glare of the street lights in the parking lot, the bright moon overhead, and dawn breaking all around me, Hale-Bopp was still clearly visible with a bushy short tail sticking straight up. I wondered how many people would view the comet from a similar location and assume that it was all there was to see.
Even though you may be able to see it through your living room window right now, please make plans to see Hale-Bopp from a dark location, without moonlight. It will be visible as one of the brightest objects in North-Eastern sky between 5:30 and 6:00 every clear morning until the twenty first of March. Then it will be the brightest object in the North-West just after dusk for another three weeks. Buy or borrow a pair of binoculars, preferably with 50mm objective lenses. (7X50,10X50 or 12X50) Keep an eye on the sky and be aware of the weather forecast and the phase of the Moon. Be ready at a moments notice to grab someone who you love, a thermos of hot chocolate, and your binoculars, and drive to the darkest location you can find to view this wonderful comet. Then give your eyes ten or fifteen minutes to adjust to the darkness. I promise that if you do, you will have an experience you will remember for the rest of your life.
Find out when you can see Hale-Bopp at
Lake Afton Public Observatory