Comets bright enough to be seen without a telescope or binoculars are rare. Those that can rightly be called “great comets,” are rarer still. For stargazers of my generation, a long drought finally broke in the 1990’s when two great comets appeared in rapid succession. The first of these was Comet Hyakutake, which arrived in the spring of 1996, but was long gone before many people even knew about it. A year later, Comet Hale-Bopp rose to prominence. In March and April 1997, Hale-Bopp was so bright that I could see it from my living room window in downtown Vancouver. Under a pristine, dark sky, it was beyond magnificent.
But as I noted, comets like Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake are unusual. Far more typical are those that never reach naked-eye brightness, like Comet Garradd, which can be seen right now. To glimpse this icy visitor you’ll need good conditions far from city lights, a keen eye, and binoculars or a small telescope. (Go here to learn more about Comet Garradd.) When will we see another Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp? No one knows. But the next great comet is out there somewhere and could arrive any time.