Burned in recent years when they promised great sights in the evening sky that fizzled into fuzzballs, area astronomers can hold their heads up again, thanks to a comet named Hale-Bopp.
“I have to say I just saw it last night the first time. Its appearance is exactly what we’ve been told a great comet looks like,” Rob Ruotsalainen, an astronomer at Eastern Washington University said Friday.
If skies remain clear most of the next month, Northwest residents may well be looking at the most dazzling comet of their lifetimes, say Ruotsalainen and other area astronomers.
Unlike last year’s less-than-awesome Comet Hiyaka-whatever, Hale-Bopp is proving an even more impressive sky-watching event than scientists expected.
“It might even be the best comet of the next few hundred years,” added Ruotsalainen. “Parents should make sure they put it on their list of things for kids to see.”
Astronomers have learned not to promise too much, having seen Comet Kohoutek come our way to much fanfare, then fizzle badly about 20 years ago. Ditto for the drippy return of Halley’s comet in 1986.
This time, Comet Hale-Bopp has been an overachieving ball of dust and ice.
Last year’s visitor, Comet Hyakutake, came much closer to Earth than Hale-Bopp. But it had modest visual appeal because it was not very large.
Comet Hale-Bopp (named for its two discoverers) will never get closer than 120 million miles from Earth, but it’s roughly 10 times the size of Comet Hyakutake, said Ruotsalainen.
Hale-Bopp sports an impressive tail, the stream of vaporized ice and dust that a comet releases as it travels toward and around the sun.
The size or length of the tail depends on whether a comet is new or old. “The newer the comet, the more ice and dust is being vaporized,” Ruotsalainen said.
Judy Litton, an experienced amateur astronomer, looked out at Hale-Bopp on Thursday night and could see the comet’s impressive tail from her driveway in Northwest Spokane.
As the comet approaches the sun in its orbit, the tail should grow larger, said Litton. She also suggest people forget trying to look at the comet with a telescope and rely on the naked eye or binoculars.
“Using a telescope, you lose the tail, which is a major part of the experience,” Litton said.
Only in the last week has Hale-Bopp been easily seen in the evening sky. For the next six weeks, it will make nightly appearances in the northwest corner of the sky, about an hour before twilight, up through an hour after sunset. It’s visible shortly before dawn as well.
The best viewing will probably occur on the darkest nights of the next four weeks as as Hale-Bopp makes its closest passage to Earth. On March 22, it will be about 120 million miles away. The larger the moon in the night sky, the less visible the comet will be. But people in the Northwest will get a cosmic break on March 23, the night of the next full moon.
That night will offer, between 8:15 and 9 p.m., a chance to watch the comet during a near-total lunar eclipse. On that night, the eclipse will start at 8:15 and end around 9 p.m.
After the full moon, comet viewing should again improve as Hale-Bopp starts each evening a little higher in the sky and thus spends more time before diving behind the horizon.
By early May, evening viewing will be limited to a few minutes each evening around sunset. By mid-May, the comet will be lost in the glare of the setting sun.
Litton and other amateur astronomers suggest getting the best possible view by traveling outside the city to escape light pollution.
Said Spokane Astronomical Society member Chuck Cheselka, “I hear that as you get away to really dark skies, you should be able to see two tails on this comet.”
For those wanting to share the experience with others, the Spokane Astronomical Society will host a public comet party March 28 at the old Five Mile school, Five Mile Road and Strong Road. If viewing is poor, the club will try again on March 29.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Graphic: Searching the sky for Hale-Bopp
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Surfing the comet For those with Internet connections, here are two Web pages with information on viewing times and Hale-Bopp’s orbit: http://www.kalmbach.com/ Astro/comet/comet.html This is comet’s home page prepared by Astronomy magazine. http://wwwusno.navy.mil/cgibin/aa-comet.html This is the U.S. Naval Observatory Web page of Comet Hale-Bopp positions, with plenty of data on exactly how long the comet will be visible night-by night.