On the weekend of March 24 with the brightness of the brightest star, a comet should, the heavens willing, light up the northern sky, a luminescent cotton ball on its way home to the sun.
It will never reach there, but its orbit should bring it within 21 million miles. As its brightness grows in the sun’s heat and its gases and ice crystals evanesce, there is a chance that Comet Hyakutake will be visible from Earth by not only by telescope and binoculars but even the naked eye.
If its brightness holds, it will be intrinsically the brightest comet to pass so close to Earth - less than 9.5 million miles - since 1556.
A bundle of dust and ice crystals and who knows what else, perhaps 10 miles across, it will be traveling about 198,000 miles an hour as it rounds the sun in obedience to its orbit which should bring it back this way in 10,000 to 20,000 years.
But you needn’t wait that long.
Another gigantic comet arrives on April Fools’ Day next year. It was discovered simultaneously by two astronomers in the Southwest; they promptly became stars in the scientific firmament.
Comets - mysterious galactic travelers - confer celestial celebrity.
“Those two guys are going to have their 15 minutes of fame next year,” says Joe Rao, guest lecturer and instructor at New York’s Hayden Planetarium.
“Those two guys” are Alan Hale of Stanfield, Ariz., and Thomas Bopp of Cloudcroft, N.M., each in the south-central sections of their respective states. Hale and Bopp didn’t know each other, yet they spotted their comet within minutes of each other. Their telescopic gazes crossed in the sky.
Hale had searched the skies for comets for years, piling up hundreds of hours of telescope time. He had virtually given up ever discovering one.
Then last July he was sightseeing the night sky, not systematically searching, just scanning like one might surf the channels of one’s television screen. In fact he had his telescope trained on the constellation Sagittarius, which, says Rao, is the last place you would look for a comet.
Hale knew better than to waste his time comet-chasing amid the rubble of the universe. But he decided to focus his attention on star cluster M70, “and bang, there it was,” a fuzzy image on the edge of the star cluster that looked like a smudged fingerprint.
And lo and behold, it was moving. Hale had his comet.
Meanwhile a few hundred miles across the state line, a relative amateur, Thomas Bopp had trained his telescope on M70 as well, and spotted the same image.
Their news electrified the astronomical world. The Hale-Bopp comet had an apparent size of 60 miles across. Its orbit will likely bring it within 81 million miles of the sun.
But first will come Hyakutake, discovered in late January when it was 250 million miles from the sun. When it rounds the sun around the first of May it will be within 21 million of the sun with the chance that it may be visible to the naked eye.
There has not been a bright comet near Earth since Comet West in 1976. Rao remembers being a college sophomore at the time. “The comet had five tails, count ‘em, five.” He called newspapers and news services to tell them.
They all yawned when they found he was an excited student. They said, “Yeah, yeah kid. Go out and enjoy your comet.” But he will never forget it.
Comets, no matter how numerous, remain one of the enigmas of the galaxy.
“The solar system was formed 5-1/2 or 6 billion years ago, a big swirling mass of dust and gas which eventually condensed down to become the sun and the planets to go around it,” says Rao.
“When the furnace was lit and the sun began to glow for the first time, the energy was such that it blew out the excess material in all directions to the limits of the solar system and the planets that go around it and maybe halfway to the nearest star.”