FROM FOR THE RECORD (Thursday, March 28, 1996): Larry Elsom’s telescope has a 20-inch lens. A cutline and story indicated otherwise in Wednesday’s editions.
Like most of the 350 people waiting to look at a fuzzy patch of light in the sky, Dan Toms was anxious.
“This is the best comet in my lifetime. Heck, the last one was Halley’s Comet, back in 1986.
“And that was so bad - a total disappointment,” he said.
Toms, treasurer for Spokane Seventh Day Adventist Church, joined the crowd at Mullan Road Elementary School Monday night.
He stood in a slow-moving line that snaked through the school’s back yard toward a ladder next to a 70-inch-long, 20-inch-wide telescope.
After Toms got a two-minute view of the newest night attraction - Comet Hyakutake - he climbed down and said it was worth the wait.
“Seeing it through the ‘scope was not as exciting as I hoped, but it is still amazing,” he said.
The telescope, along with two large binoculars, were there thanks to Lewis and Clark High School teacher Larry Elsom. A devoted amateur astronomer and physics teacher, he’s sharing his knowledge and equipment as a form of payback.
Six years ago, he was chosen by the National Science Foundation to earn a master’s degree in astrophysics at the University of Arizona.
Elsom was one of 30 people chosen for that honor, paid for by tax dollars. He earned the degree over three summers and used it to rub shoulders with some of the country’s top astronomers and scientists.
“For me, this is a way to give something to others after I got the chance for one of the great experiences of my life,” he said.
Through Friday, Elsom will be setting up his equipment at the school around 9 p.m., when most teachers are getting ready for bed.
If skies are reasonably clear, he’ll remain until midnight, giving pointers and answering questions.
The turnout since Sunday has been surprising. That first-night crowd of about 300 kept asking him questions until after 1 a.m. On Monday, the crowd thinned around midnight.
“There’s something about comets. They’re mysterious, they come out of the deep, dark cosmos and come flaring across the night sky,” said Elsom.
His first night at the school, Elsom noticed an amputee rolling up to the telescope, intent on getting a view of the comet.
Unable to climb the ladder, the man was lifted about six feet off the ground to reach the eyepiece.
“When he finished looking, he thought it was simply incredible,” said Elsom.
R.L. Dietz, a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society, has the same reaction to Comet Hyakutake.
“The Earth hasn’t seen a comet like this in 400 years,” said Dietz, who has been photographing the comet.
After three nights of gazing at Hyakutake crossing below the Big Dipper, Dietz said the comet’s large coma - the ball of glowing dust - and its long flaring tail have been impressive.
“This is the kind of comet that caused inquisitions in the Middle Ages,” he said.
In the crowd Monday night, Debra Rose and her son Bill Wright shivered and tried to stay warm talking to others in the line.
After viewing the comet through the telescope, Rose, a hardware store cashier, had the same mixed reaction as many others that night.
Instead of a magnified view of what is visible with the naked eye, the scope enlarges only the relatively tiny internal head of the comet, called the nucleus.
“I thought you’d see more of the coma or cloud. And I couldn’t see any of the tail through the telescope,” she said.
She and her son, a Ferris High School junior, said they plan to buy their own telescope for future night-sky viewing.
“If you get under the big sky and look up, you can point and say, ‘Look there.’ And you see something millions of others may be seeing, the same as you.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHEN TO WATCH Comet Hyakutake will remain in the night sky through April as it moves toward the sun. If clear, look tonight and Thursday near the North Star. Next week it will be found moving toward the constellation Perseus and then on toward the sky’s northwest corner. Viewing improves after the next full moon.