Amateur finds 'nearest' comet

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The Independent Online

Science Correspondent

A comet discovered just eight days ago by a Japanese man with a pair of binoculars will become one of the brightest objects in the night sky next month.

Britain's thousands of amateur astronomers are buzzing at the news that Comet Hyakutake - named after the man who spotted it - will be visible with the naked eye, almost directly overhead, on the nights of 26 and 27 March. It will then be just 10 million miles from the Earth - closer than any major object, except the Moon. It will then approach the Sun, passing within 20 million miles in May.

"This really is very exciting. This could be a really good one," said the astronomer Patrick Moore yesterday, as the International Astronomical Union confirmed the comet's name. "When it's there, it will be visible all night. It could be the brightest comet this century."

Comets are, in cosmic terms, small bodies - a few miles wide, composed of frozen gases and liquids and dust. They are thought to take enormously elliptical orbits around the Sun, so that they approach it only briefly, in trajectories which may take hundreds of years to complete. The most famous, Halley's Comet, takes 76 years to complete its orbit, and last passed the Sun in 1986.

Observers in Britain should find that Comet Hyakutake becomes visible after twilight in mid-March. It should be found between the constellations known as the Plough and the Little Plough, where it will show up as an elongated white shape, brighter than surrounding stars. It will move towards the Sun, before heading off tothe edge of the Solar System.