Hard to believe that it’s twenty years since Comet Hyakutake was gracing our sky, but countless Tweets, posts on Facebook and the pages of every astronomy book I own are all telling me it’s true. Twenty years since that comet unfurled its ridiculously long tail out behind it and stretched it across the northern sky. Twenty years since I stood in my backyard in Cockermouth and saw it shining next to Polaris, visible even through the saffron glow of the surrounding streetlights. Twenty years since I walked half an hour out of town on a beautifully clear night, found a country gate and stood there for at least an hour, just looking up at it, drinking in its beauty. Twenty years. That’s insane.
Comet Hyakutake is often called “the “warm up act” for Comet Hale-Bopp which blazed in the sky a year later. Many more people saw Hale-Bopp than Hyakutake because we had a lot more advance warning about it, and were well prepared. It was also more obvious to the naked eye than Hyakutake, brighter and with that now legendary v-shaped tail which slapped you across the face as soon as you stepped outside and looked in the comet’s general direction. You didn’t need a star map to find Hale-Bopp, or your local amateur astronomer to point it out for you, if you went outside and looked in its direction as twilight was deepening it was just… there, hanging above the trees and rooftops, glowing next to the silhouetted church steeple, a curved, misty “V” hanging in the sky as if painted on it. How many millions of people around the world saw that comet? We’ll never know, but it must be a huge number…
Hale-Bopp lingered in the sky for what seemed like an eternity, there night after night. I remember that that Spring the UK was blessed with quite a long spell of good weather, allowing comet watchers and the public alike to see the comet night after night after night. In the end we probably got a bit blase about it, and took it for granted. “Oh look, there’s Hale-Bopp again…” as we pottered about in the garden or came back from the shops. Today, having been denied anything even remotely as beautiful for all these years, if I could go back in time I would squeeze every glorious, rare second out of of every minute of every hour of every evening Hale-Bopp was in the sky..
But Hyakutake was really a comet for sky-watchers and astronomers. It was a brief visitor to the sky in comparison to Hale-Bopp, and wasn’t as immediately obvious to the naked eye either. Ironically, its long, long tail made it less obvious to the public, because it just looked like a long, faint vapour trail in the sky, not bright enough to slap you across the face as soon as you saw it, and not bright enough to draw your eye to it if you didn’t know it was there. But for astronomers it was a wonder, so beautiful that twenty years after it graced our skies even hearing someone say its name, or coming across its name in a magazine or book, makes us smile wistfully and drags us back in time to when we gazed up at it.
My most vivid memory of Hyakutake is from when it was just about at its very best. One night, despite the weather forecast not being very promising at all, I went out into the Cumbrian countryside with a fellow member of the Cockermouth AS, Linda Davison, one of my best observing buddies, in pursuit of Hyakutake. we wound our way out of town and out into the fells, looking for a place to escape the streetlights and hopefully see Hyakutake at its best. When we arrived at our farm track, out in the middle of the back of beyond, the sky was totally cloudy, not a hint of a star showing, but we decided, having come all that way, to wait it out. Time dragged on, and the cloud stayed thick and foul above us. Finally, an age later, we started to see a few stars, just a few, but enough to lure us out of the car with our binoculars and crossed fingers. More stars popped into view through gaps in the cloud, and then in a large gap we saw… something… a glowing ball of.. something.. with a kind of misty beam stretched out behind it. But it was too long to be the comet’s tail, surely? No, that was stupidly long, ridiculously long…
Really? Was that Hyakutake?
I know what you’re thinking – how could you not know?? Well, remember, this was an age before you could just reach into your pocket, pull out your phone and use an app to check what you were seeing. This was in Ye Olden Times, long before Brian Cox first stood on a hilltop with his hair blowing in the breeze like a dark unicorn’s mane, long before you could buy a kick-ass digital camera for the price of a DVD boxset, back when a 6″ telescope could cost you £1000. This was The Past. Things were different then.
So it took us a while to realise that we were actually seeing Hyakutake. But when we did, boy, you could have seen our grins from orbit. It was a beautiful sight – a smudgy head, a pale turquoise-green-ish colour, with a long, long, long tail stretched out behind it. It genuinely did look like a WW2 searchlight stretched across the sky. And it just went on and on and on…
If Hyakutake appeared now, of course, I would photograph the Watney out of it, with my Canon 1100D DSLR on my beloved iOptron Skytracker mount. I would stay out from dusk til dawn taking images of it, filling one memory card after another with pictures of it taken through half a dozen different lenses, and I would post them on Facebook and Twitter for all the world to see. But I didn’t have a decent camera then, just a very basic, chunky clunky Practika SLR (or had I moved on to a fancy streamlined Centon by then? Can’t remember…) so my precious memories of Hyakutake are all in *here*, in my head, and in my heart too.
But you know, that’s ok. I truly believe that some sky sights – a glorious sunrise, a meteor shower, a breathtaking aurora, or a perfect view of a bright comet – aren’t meant to be photographed or seen through a camera; they can’t be photographed in a way that does them justice. A camera simply can’t capture the whole experience of seeing them, they have to be seen through eyes that are wide with wonder, so I’m okay with my personal memories of Hyakutake all being internal.
In the past twenty years (excluding Hale-Bopp, of course) no comet which has shone in the northern sky has come anywhere close to being as impressive as Hyakutake. Oh yes, we’ve had quite a few comets to look at, but they’ve been poor imitations of the Greats of 96 and 97. Down South, of course they’ve enjoyed several decent naked eye comets, with long tails, broad tails, multiple tails, the works. This past week or so our friends below the equator have been enjoying an unusually large comet in their sky, not an obvious naked eye object but more impressive than most comets we’ve seen “up here” since those heady Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp days. A few have been naked eye objects, but only if you could get to somewhere with a truly dark sky. A few have had tails too, but little stubby stunted things compared to H and HB. Most of the comets we’ve had up here in the past twenty years have been little more than smudgy tadpoles in the sky, quite easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes, and pretty enough on long exposure photos taken with our modern, light-gulping DSLRs, but really, pale imitations of proper comets seen in years and times past. We keep getting one okayish LINEAR and PANSTARRS after another, but we are so long overdue another Great Comet, it’s infuriating.
When will it come?
Well, it’s probably already on its way. We just haven’t found it yet.
Almost certainly, right now, as you read this, out there, far far out in the black there is a comet coming towards us destined to be the Next Great Comet, maybe even a comet large, bright and beautiful enough to put Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp to shame, to make us forget them. It might not reach us for another decade, or for several decades, but statistically it must be out there, its future already written. One day someone, somewhere – an amateur peering into a telescope eyepiece or an astronomer looking at images taken by one of the automated surveys – will spot a distant speck of light moving against the background stars, and computers will work out its orbit, alerting us to the act that finally, finally we have an inbound comet that will pass close to the Sun at the same time as passing close to the Earth, with the geometry of its tail and everything else being perfect to give us a spectacle in the sky..
Then all we will be able to do is wait impatiently until it finally graces our sky, and then there will be a feeding frenzy as after being starved of a beautiful comet for so long we devour it. And oh, the photos we will take with our 21st century equipment, our star trackers, CCD cameras and every other box of tricks! Just imagine what we will be able to do with a second Hale-Bopp or Hyakutake! Just think of the detail we will be able to capture in the tail with our zoom lenses and refractors! Just imagine the breathtaking images we will take of it glowing in the sky before sunrise or after sunset, tail stretching across the heavens. Imagine the beautiful scenes we will capture –
One day I’ll stand in my yard and see that comet. One day I’ll trek up to Kendal Castle and take photographs of that comet shining above the ruins, as I’ve dreamed of doing ever since moving here more than a decade ago. One day I’ll show that comet to a huge group of people at an observing event organised by my astronomical society and will love seeing the same looks of delight and wonder on their faces that I wore when I gazed up at Hyakutake what seems like a lifetime ago.
The next Hyakutake is out there, right now. Bathed in cold starlight, with the golden Sun ahead of it, pulling at it, beckoning it, it is waiting to hypnotise and delight us. I can feel it. So can you, I think.
Let’s hope it’s found soon.
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