One aspect of being an avid sky watcher is that the passage of time isn’t marked just with pages in a calendar, but also by gaps — the spaces between “once-in-a-lifetime” events. Looking at this photo of Comet Hale-Bopp now, I can scarcely believe that 15 years have elapsed since I aimed my camera skyward to capture it. The gap widens with each passing year spent watching amd waiting for the arrival of the next great comet.
Many casual sky watchers would probably consider Hale-Bopp a once-in-a-lifetime event. Except that it wasn’t. Just a year earlier, another bright comet unexpectedly appeared: Comet Hyakutake. Unlike Hale-Bopp, which we saw approaching years in advance, Hyakutake came and went like a late-afternoon thunderstorm — almost before we knew it, it had swung by the Earth and was retreating back into the cold depths of space from whence it came. Depending on your sky conditions, it was even more spectacular than Hale-Bopp. On the night of closest approach, Hyakutake shone like a beautiful blue-green beacon from the handle of the Big Dipper, with a delicate searchlight-beam of a tail that stretched across the sky.
Those two springtime comets hold special significance for observers of my generation. Up until they arrived, many of us felt positively snake bit when it came to comets. I was too young and unaware to see the great sungrazer of 1965, Comet Ikeya–Seki. However, I was old enough to enjoy the bitter disappointment of 1973’s no-show “comet of the century,” Comet Kohoutek. Comet West? Like a lot of other astronomers in 1976, I only heard about that magnificent visitor long after it had come and gone. And don’t get me started on how defeated I felt when Halley’s Comet – the one “sure bet” of my astronomical life – failed to live up to expectations. But in spite of all those dashed hopes and missed opportunities, I have to admit that getting to see not one, but two great comets in the span of just a single year, more than makes up for it.
Fifteen years and counting . . .
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