Spotters await the comet of the century

Thousands of amateur astronomers are preparing their binoculars to watch what could be the brightest comet so far this century. Comet Hyukatake, discovered in January by a Japanese amateur, will be at its brightest by the end of this week, when it should be visible all night as a large, fuzzy patch a little smaller than the Moon.

Besides being exceptionally bright for a comet, it will also pass very close - in cosmic terms - to the Earth. On Saturday it will be just 10 million miles away, having travelled hundreds of millions of miles through space on an elliptical orbit around the Sun that has probably taken centuries. It will then pass 20 million miles from the Sun before disappearing below the plane of the Solar System.

Although some comets have proved disappointingly dim after predictions that they would light up the sky, experts are hopeful this will be different.

"It looks as though this is going to be very bright," said the noted astronomer Patrick Moore yesterday. "I don't think that it will be as big as the full moon, but part of that is because it is still approaching us. It will look more like a conventional comet - with a tail streaming behind it - next month, when it is moving away from us."

Comets are frozen bodies of gas, liquid and rocks a few miles across whose "tails" are created by streams vapourising as the Sun heats them up. The tail always points away from the Sun.

The comet is currently most visible in the early hours of the morning, after about 3am. It is best viewed using binoculars: "Telescopes don't have a wide enough field of view," said Mr Moore. But as the week progresses it will become brighter and more visible throughout more of the night as it moves towards the sky's North Pole.

Anyone wanting to see it should find a spot away from city lights and allow their eyes to adjust to the lower brightness of the stars. It should be possible to spot the comet using the star chart (see graphic).

Hyukatake is now expected to be the brightest comet for at least 20 years, and possibly since the turn of the century. It was discovered in January by Yuji Hyukatake, an amateur astronomer using a powerful pair of 6in binoculars. At that time it showed up only as a faint smudge of light against the background of stars, but will now probably remain visible until May.

But even before Hyukatake has come fully into view, astronomers are preparing for the arrival next year of Comet Hale-Bopp, which will make its closest approach to the Sun on 1 April. It could eventually be brighter than Hyukatake, according to experts who spotted it beyond Jupiter's orbit last summer.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Ashdown Group: PHP Developer - Buckinghamshire - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior PHP Developer - Milton Keynes...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003