by Dave and Jennifer Skitt
The attached page from the AAAP Simpson Observatory Log Book dates back to March of 1996. The AAAP astronomers mentioned are Darryl F., Ralph Marantino, Saul Moroz, Chris Moser, Jim McFee, Bill Murray, Ron Mittelstaedt and G. Maro. The object of interest was “The Great Comet” Hyakutaki.
Comet Hyakutaki had been discovered barely two months earlier by Japanese amateur comet hunter Yuji Hyakutake. It was predicted by NASA to make its closest approach to earth on March 25, 1996. It is no wonder why there was so much activity at the Observatory during the week shown in the log!
According to the log, our amateur astronomers were successful in viewing and sketching the comet with binoculars (which is how the comet was discovered) and the 12.5 inch diameter Newtonian telescope present at the time. Some of the astronomers even managed to image the comet with 35mm film cameras piggybacked to the telescope. What an accomplishment!
Below, is a NASA press release from the period.
Headquarters, Washington, DC March 21, 1996
Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA
NASA TO OBSERVE AND PUBLISH IMAGES OF COMET HYAKUTAKE
NASA is conducting a variety of activities designed to study the approaching Comet C/1996 B2 Hyakutake and will share this information, and on-going amateur and student observations of the comet, with the general public.
Discovered on January 30 by Japanese amateur comet hunter Yuji Hyakutake using powerful binoculars, the comet is expected to be as bright or brighter than the stars of the Big Dipper. The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on March 25 at a distance of about 9.3 million miles.
It should be visible (weather and light pollution permitting) as a dimly glowing cloud in the northern night sky to the left of the handle of the Big Dipper, as seen from North America.
Several NASA spacecraft, including the Hubble Space Telescope, will attempt to take images of Comet Hyakutake.
Hubble has an especially rare and challenging task. Astronomers say it is unlikely such a comet will ever come this close to Earth again during Hubble’s planned operational lifetime. Since Hubble is not actively controlled from the ground and the comet’s position is not precisely known, viewing the speeding visitor will be especially tricky. The telescope will be preprogrammed to point at a selected spot in the sky where the comet will be at a specific time.
Planned Hubble science observations of Comet Hyakutake include high-resolution imagery and ultraviolet spectroscopy. Near the time of the comet’s closest approach, Hubble should be able to see details as small as four miles across. Astronomers also hope to see jets of dust emerging from the comet’s nucleus.
NASA’s recently launched Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft is scheduled to take images of the comet as a calibration exercise. Although NEAR offers a different vantage point from Hubble, its camera was not designed to image objects at such large distances.
Several NASA-supported ground-based observatories also will be studying the comet during late March and in April as the comet approaches perihelion (its closest distance from the Sun.)
NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, HI, will dedicate several days of observing time to study the release of dust and ice grains from the nucleus of the comet. These ices are composed primarily of water. Spectral observations of the molecules vaporized from the nucleus should provide samples of molecular abundances that were present at the time of the formation of the Solar System. The Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer spacecraft will make observations of neon and helium for comparison with the water production rates to be measured by the IRTF.
Images from IRTF and many other sources will be posted to a “virtual star party” on the Internet called the “Night of the Comet,” sponsored by NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program, and its K-12 Internet Initiative. This home page allows anyone with access to a computer and a modem to post and observe Hyakutake images, track the progress of the comet, converse with NASA experts, learn about astronomy and participate in experiments.
“Although the project is just getting started, the initial response has been tremendous,” said SOFIA project educator Bob Hillenbrand. “Virtually every state is covered, plus Puerto Rico, and observers are participating from every part of the globe, including Taiwan, Australia, Africa, Russia, South America and Europe.”
“Night of the Comet” can be accessed via the Internet at URL:
Students in California, Virginia, New York, Delaware and Japan have begun a regular campaign of observing Comet Hyakutake using an automated 24-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, CA, through the NASA-supported Telescopes In Education (TIE) project.
“We are scheduling one school or group to observe each day of the week,” said Gilbert Clark, TIE project manager and organizer of the comet campaign. He expects the observations to continue, weather permitting, through at least part of April, as the comet moves from an early- morning object in the southwest sky to an early-evening object in the northwest sky.
Students will control the telescope and receive their images via telephone lines at their schools, using desktop computers and commercial software. The software package allows them to perform digital image processing to enhance contrast and other features, as is done with spacecraft images. They will send their observation notes and images to the TIE project’s World Wide Web page.
A comet is a small, icy body that orbits the Sun in an elongated orbit that can be disturbed by the on-going orbits of the planets. Resembling a “dirty snowball,” a comet typically has a relatively tiny nucleus, often less than six miles across. When radiation from the sun warms a comet, ice particles from its nucleus tend to “steam” outwards, creating a large coma or surrounding atmosphere and a tail of material that streams away from the Sun. In some cases, the coma and tail can be thousands or even millions of miles across, offering dramatic viewing opportunities. Comet Hyakutake has the potential to provide just such a spectacle.
According to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA, Comet Hyakutake will make the nearest passage to Earth of any comet since 1983, and the fifth closest this century.
We hope you enjoyed this Page from the Past. Looking forward to more pages from the past, present and future!
I also wanted to point out that it was on March 22, 1996 when Saul Moroz received his Keyholder key. Saul maintained his Keyholder position until his passing a few months ago. Jennifer and I both enjoyed working with Saul on public nights.