Holy Hyakutake, that's close

A comet heading our way in March will miss our planet by a mere 10 million miles, write Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper

Keep a eye open in March to spot the most exciting sky sight for many a year. Britain will have a grandstand view of the newly discovered Comet Hyakutake, as it skims past the Earth at the end of the month.

This unexpected celestial visitor was found by Yuji Hyakutake, a Japanese amateur astronomer, on 30 January. He was scanning the skies with a huge pair of binoculars with lenses 6in across. He found a faint smudge of magnitude 11 to 12 - 100 times fainter than the naked eye can see - between the constellations of Hydra (the water snake) and Libra (the scales). It was a previously unknown comet, then beyond the orbit of Mars as it headed in towards the Sun.

Just five weeks earlier, Mr Hyakutake had found another comet in the same region. While the previous Comet Hyakutake was never destined for greatness, astronomers realised that this new comet was on track for the record books. Brian Marsden, of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calculated that the second Comet Hyakutake was coming towards the Earth. It would miss our planet by less than 10 million miles.

The last time a comet came so close was in 1983, when Comet IRAS-Araki- Alcock buzzed the Earth. But it was a puny specimen. Comet Hyakutake is a much more impressive creature, and promises to shine as brightly as the most brilliant stars.

On the other hand, Comet Hyakutake will cover an area of sky bigger than the full Moon, so its light will be spread out to a large misty glow. We are lucky that there will be no bright moonlight to drown out the comet as it passes the Earth, but you will need to get well away from street lights to see this rare visitor at its best. Let your eyes get used to the dark for 10 minutes in order to see its true glory.

The comet will be at its best between 22 March and the end of the month, at the positions marked on the "Looking North" map. For a comet, it is moving at a rapid pace. (Contrary to popular belief, comets do not whip through the sky like a firework rocket.) And it passes near the familiar stars of Ursa Major - better known as the Plough - and Polaris (the Pole Star), which can be used as "signposts" to Hyakutake.

On 22 March identify the brilliant star Arcturus by following the "handle" of the Plough towards the horizon. The comet is to the lower left of Arcturus. Over the next two nights, it brightens considerably as it heads towards the Plough, from magnitude 2 (equal to the Pole Star) until it almost rivals Arcturus in brightness.

Comet Hyakutake passes closest to the Earth in the early morning of 25 March, as it moves through the constellation of Draco (the dragon) between the Plough and the Pole Star. It may be sporting a faint tail of glowing gas, though the bright dusty tail that makes a comet so spectacular does not develop until after it has passed the Sun, on 1 May.

Binoculars will show some details in the comet's large fuzzy "head". It will take a pretty large telescope to show much more - in particular, the tiny central nucleus where the action lies. This is a frozen snowball a few miles across. It began life in the chilly reaches of the outer solar system and, as it comes within the orbit of Mars, the Sun's heat is boiling away the ice to create the comet's gaseous head and tail.

Professional astronomers are quickly preparing plans to try to make out the shape and size of the nucleus. Some will use the Hubble Space Telescope to take the sharpest possible pictures. Others will bounce radio waves off the nucleus and try to work out its properties from the radar "echoes" they receive.

For astronomers, the observations planned for Comet Hyakutake will be an excellent dress rehearsal for an even more spectacular comet due to grace our skies next year: Comet Hale-Bopp. Watch this space.

What's up

Venus, usually only visible at dusk and dawn, makes a rare appearance on the star chart this month. By the end of March, it will not be setting until midnight (BST), and it is a stunning sight against a dark sky. A small telescope will show Venus about three-quarters lit up by the Sun at the beginning of March, although it will look more like a "half-moon" towards the end. As it and the Earth draw closer together, Venus grows even brighter. At the end of March, it is magnitude -4.2, and the most brilliant object in the sky apart from the Sun and Moon.

Otherwise, there is a paucity of planets on show. The only other planet visible is Jupiter, which rises about 3.30am mid-month. But Comet Hyakutake should more than make up for the lack of planets.

The stars on view are very definitely those of spring, with Leo the lion riding high in the south. Below Leo is Hydra, the largest constellation in the sky but by no means easy to see, because its stars are faint and the constellation is low in the sky as seen from the UK.

Diary (all times GMT):

4 March: Mars at conjunction.

5 March, 9.22am: full Moon.

12 March, 5.15pm: Moon at last quarter.

17 March: Saturn at conjunction.

19 March, 10.44am: new Moon.

25 March, 7am: Comet Hyakutake closest to Earth.

27 March, 1.30am: Moon at first quarter.

28 March: Mercury at superior conjunction.

31 March, 2am: British Summer Time begins.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game