A smudge on the night sky Comet Hyakutake: New discoveries change what we think we know.

March 28, 1996

TO THE UNTUTORED EYE, the newly discovered Comet Hyakutake is the star that looks drunk on a cloudless night. It is a smudge when real stars are sharp. It changes its place from night to night and from hour to hour. It wasn't there, and then it was, and soon it will be gone.

No Hubble or other fabled telescope or university consortium discovered this brightest of comets. Yuji Hyakutake, a dedicated amateur with equipment more powerful than most individuals have, did. Then, as word spread and the world peered, he had trouble seeing it again because his viewing mountain in Japan remained cloud-shrouded.

Halley's Comet comes once every 75 years and is expected. Hyakutake's comes once every 10,000 or 20,000 years, and was a surprise. It tells us that not all is known in the universe, any more than in selected segments of it. This is the first comet tracked on the Internet.

Comets aren't what they used to be. Thanks to light pollution in cities and suburbs, the night sky is not clearly seen by most people and an intruder goes unnoticed except by the Yuji Hyakutakes of the world. They are no longer disturbances or troubling omens.

When it come back, roughly between the years 11996 and 21996, Comet Hyakutake will look much the same, if there is any place on earth sufficiently free of light pollution from which to view it. But the earth, what will it look like to a seeing eye on the comet? That's the question no scientist today can answer.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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