Observing Comet Hyakutake at Augustana

When the skies were clear, the observatory was open to view the spectacular Comet Hyakutake (yah-koo-tah-kay) on the following evenings:

Wednesday, March 20, 1996 --- 65 people visited, excellent viewing!
Thursday, March 21, 1996 --- about 200 visitors, excellent viewing!
Friday, March 22, 1996 --- about 600 visitors, excellent viewing!
Sunday, March 24, 1996 --- closed because of overcast skies
Monday, March 25, 1996 --- about 225 visitors, excellent viewing from 8-10

On Sunday, March 17, the comet as seen through the 14" telescope in the observatory was brighter than any Messier object including Andromeda. You could see the nucleus but not its tail. The comet was also observed a few miles south of Milan where, after midnight, you could see its tail both with binoculars and the naked eye.

On Wednesday, March 20, the comet was initially observed in the C14 telescope at about 9:30 pm. From 10 to 12 as it rose higher in the east, it became much easier to see. It is definitely getting brighter from one night to the next. Even at 10 pm it was very easy to spot with the naked eye. On the deck of the observatory we also used an 8" reflector telescope, a 3" refractor, 7 x 50 binoculars on a tripod, and Steve Saber's 16 x 80 binoculars on a tripod.  Steve reported seeing a 3.5° tail through his binoculars.

No one claimed to have seen the tail. However, after midnight Todd Kempf, who had been at the observatory, traveled about 25 miles south of the Quad Cities and reported that the view was awesome. He could easily see both the dust tail and the ion tail. They were so long that it was necessary to scan the comet with binoculars to see them.

On Thursday, March 21, after the cloud bank in the east moved out at about 9:30, viewing was excellent. The crowd included several families who brought their grade school children. The same assortment of telescopes and binoculars were available as on Wednesday night. An additional feature was a presentation by Dr. Cecilia Vogel of the physics department. She used the large screen in the adjacent John Deere Lecture Hall to show where Comet Hyakutake is traveling through the sky in the next couple of weeks and discussed what new information we are learning about the comet via the Internet.

On Friday, March 22, we opened early and some of us looked at Venus, a sliver of the moon showing many craters, and the great nebula in Orion (M42). Comet Hyakutake was high enough to see by 9:00 pm. A steady stream of people including many kids walked around the observatory deck to see the comet naked eye, observed the coma and bright center in the 8" telescope on the deck, and then checked it out in the 14" telescope in the observatory. Many of those who were waiting patiently for their turn were treated to a comet program in the planetarium. Others watched videos in the John Deere Lecture Hall. We closed at midnight.

Cloudy skies prevented us from seeing the comet on Saturday, March 23. But for some of us the theme was still comets. A program called "The Comets are Coming" featuring a lecture by David Levy was presented on Saturday night at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Those who attended included Mel and Betty Peterson, David and Donna Renneke, and Cecilia Vogel. It was a great show!

By 8:00 pm on Monday, March 25, the clouds that occasionally dropped light snow moved away. Viewing was excellent for the next two hours as many families braved the cold temperatures and were rewarded with a view of the comet's tail. With the 30 mm eyepiece and telecompressor providing an angular field of 25' (slightly smaller than a full moon), the image of the tiny part of the tail we saw looked like a shaft of light emanating in one direction from the bright nucleus. On the deck of the observatory, 16 x 80 binoculars were also trained on the comet. The 8" telescope was pointed at Venus and then the first-quarter moon.

Last update: February 23, 2008.