A light seen once in 10,000 years Comet Hyakutake: More than 300 people turned out over the weekend at the Maryland Space Grant Observatory to get a peek at the interplanetary visitor

March 25, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Seven-year-old Philip Citerone of Towson climbed onto a stepladder at the Maryland Space Grant Observatory in Baltimore last night to get a telescopic look at Comet Hyakutake, the first naked-eye comet that most Marylanders have ever seen.

He pronounced it, "Boring."

"All I see is a dot. Nothing is happening," the Cromwell Elementary School student said as he peered through the observatory's 20-inch reflector telescope, on the roof of the Bloomberg Physics and Astronomy Building at the Johns Hopkins University.

More than 300 people thought the comet was exciting enough to visit the observatory's open house on Friday and Saturday nights. They viewed it under the guidance of graduate astrophysics student Ryan Newcomer, 23. More than 100 people were lined up last night under clear, starry skies.

Few seemed disappointed as they saw what looked in the telescope like a distant auto headlamp shining through fog. The comet is visible to the naked eye, or through binoculars, just below the Big Dipper, and edging further west each night.

Sister Diane of the Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville was there with two other nuns and 10 students last night. "We were talking about it among the sisters and decided we wanted to see it. It's a once-in-10,000-years event," she said. "It's definitely been worth it."

Rhoda Wilson, 17, a Towson High School senior, was among the first in line with her father, Dr. Jonathan Wilson, and sister, Verna, 9.

"I want to be either an astronaut or study astrophysics," Rhoda said. "I thought it would be really neat to see something so far out in space."

Al Citerone brought his family to see the comet last night. They had given up on Saturday after waiting 45 minutes in line.

"It was way past my bedtime," young Philip explained. His sister Amelia, 9, saw the comet last night and seemed satisfied, though she said, "I wish it was bigger and a little more easy to see."

But Philip remained unimpressed. "I'm more into dinosaurs," he said.

Amateur and professional astronomers around the world will be training their telescopes or binoculars on Hyakutake today as it makes its closest approach to Earth -- 9.5 million miles.

Several teams using the Hubble Space Telescope will pursue the comet this week and next. Hubble's high-resolution optics, sensitive spectrographs and the comet's close pass should combine to produce the most detailed study of a comet's nucleus since Soviet, European and Japanese spacecraft buzzed Halley's Comet in 1986.

The comet is zipping by at 93,000 mph. The Hubble astronomers hope to see features as small as 4 miles across. Hubble may be able to resolve the comet's 10-mile-wide nucleus of ice and dust, and its jets of escaping gases.

Scientists want to identify those gases just as they emerge, before the sun's radiation has had a chance to break them down. Those "parent" molecules may reveal chemistry never seen before in a comet, and provide scientists with new insights into the physics and chemistry of the early solar system.

For those who miss seeing the comet, Hyakutake's next swing by the sun will be an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 years from now.

Scientists at Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel yesterday snapped photographs using a camera on the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft. Launched last month toward a 1999 rendezvous with the asteroid Eros, NEAR is now 10 million miles away.

APL spokesman Luther Young said the NEAR camera is not powerful enough to get scientifically important photos of the comet, but the effort will help to calibrate the spacecraft's instruments. The pictures should be sent back to Earth in a few days.

From the ground, Hyakutake should remain visible soon after sunset through the end of the month and into the first weeks of April as it crosses the northern sky and heads toward the sun.

Several recent telescopic images of Hyakutake are available on the Internet, http: //www.noao.edu (See the section "About Comets").

The observatory at Hopkins will be open, weather permitting, at sunset tonight and tomorrow. Information: University of Maryland Observatory, off Metzerott Road. Open house from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. tonight through Friday. Information: (301) 405-4627, daytime.

Harford County: The Harford County Astronomical Society will hold an open house at the community college observatory, off Thomas Run Road, at 7: 30 p.m. tonight, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7: 30 p.m. April 1. Information: (410) 836-4155.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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