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The Great Comet of 1996
The Great Comet of 1996

On the evening of March 24th, in the presence of a waxing crescent moon and lightly falling snow, Comet Hyakutake was a prominent sight in the northern sky. In a few short hours the comet was expected to make its closest approach to Earth.

By bedtime clouds had thickened. The comet's head remained only faintly visible. Under the circumstances I refrained from setting the alarm for an early, 3 a.m. reveille. Reluctantly, I went to bed knowing I would likely miss what could be the greatest comet of the century.

Inexplicably, I was suddenly wide awake at exactly 3 a.m. Expecting the worst, I went to the nearest door to check sky conditions. The black sky was full of stars! From my rural Montana location, stars down to magnitude 6.5 were readily visible. But there was more. Stretching southward from straight overhead was the longest and brightest comet tail I had ever seen! The ghostly, blue-green tail appeared narrower and brighter as I shifted my gaze northward. I leaned further out the south-facing door in an attempt to see the comet's head. I saw only more tail – narrower and brighter than before.

With red flashlight in hand, I excitedly made my way to the north-facing door. Upon opening it I was greeted by the narrowest and brightest part of the comet's tail along with Hyakutake's brilliant head.

Wasting no time, I rushed to awaken the rest of the family. Without turning on any lights they dressed, wrapped themselves in blankets and followed me outside. We stood in awe on the frozen, snow covered ground. The thermometer read minus seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, but no one complained.

The great comet's head was near Thuban, in Draco. The tail passed through Ursa Major, Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices before fading into the background sky somewhere in the depths of Virgo. It was impossible to see the entire comet all at once. We had to face north, putting much of the comet's tail behind us in order to see Hyakutake's head. We had to face south, with the comet's head to our backs in order to see the end of the tail. Our most dramatic view came from craning our necks and staring straight up into the body of the massive beast.

We felt tiny, insignificant, and humbled beneath the monstrous, Millennium-Class comet. My wife had to go to work the next day. My son had school to attend. Neither ever regretted getting up in the wee hours of that frigid night. It was truly a once in a lifetime event.

Date Taken: 06/22/2011
Author: Willaim G

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