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A celestial show will dazzle the sky -- and earthlings -- this weekend

March 19, 1996
Web posted at: 9 p.m. EST

Amateur stargazers

From Correspondent Miles O'Brien

JACKSON, Georgia (CNN) -- Star gazers, it's time to find a dark location and look upward.

The celebrity: Comet Hyakutake.

The event: Hyakutake will pass a mere nine and a half million miles from Earth this coming week and will be visible to the naked eye in the northern atmosphere.

By the weekend, if it's a clear night and a secluded place tucked away from city lights, people in the northern hemisphere should be able to see the comet.

Last week, the comet was barely visible to the naked eye, just a faint fuzzy star. It showed up clearly in binoculars and at one remote park, an appreciative crowd staring up at the sky gasped in amazement.

Some whispered in reverence: "It's incredible." Others shouted in surprise: "Wow."


Discovered only in January, the oohs and aahs for Hyakutake promise to keep getting louder, because Alan MacRobert of Sky & Telescope Magazine believes that if all goes well, it will be the brightest comet in 20 years.

"It really snuck up on us, and we hope we can get the word out quickly enough to people to get out there and see it, because it won't be around that long," says Alex Langoussis of the Atlanta Astronomy Club.

The first good chance for amateurs looking to see it is on Thursday. (MacRobert explains ways to identify the comet. 196K AIFF sound or 196K WAV sound)

With each passing night, the comet will be higher in the sky, further to the left and will appear a little earlier. It should also be getting brighter.

Photo gallery

By Sunday, the comet will make its closest approach to Earth. With clear skies, people should be able to spot it near the handle of the big dipper, as soon as the sky gets dark.

In the days after that, it will gradually move toward the northwest, finally disappearing below the horizon in April.

The last comet to really capture the public imagination was Shoemaker Levy 9, which slammed into Jupiter two years ago. But not to worry; there's no chance Hyakutake will hit the Earth, MacRobert says.

For those who want to catch this celestial show, bundle up, get outside, and don't dawdle. This may be one comet tale astronomers will savor.

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