A rare visitor to Northern skies
Stargazers in for a rare double-whammy this month.
by James Hrynyshyn
NNSL (Mar 03/97) - On top of the seasonal peak of the Aurora Borealis that surrounds the beginning of spring in March comes an elder visitor best seen in Northern skies.
Comet Hale-Bopp is 4.5 billion years old and was last seen in this part of the galaxy around 2200 BC. It should be easily seen by the naked eye for the next couple of months.
Most Earthlings in the northern hemisphere should be able to catch a glimpse of the block of ice and rock about 40 kilometres in diameter and dragging a tail millions of kilometres long behind it -- if they know where and when to look.
Anyone willing to get up early enough can find it low in the eastern sky, say about 5:30 a.m. Beginning in mid-March, you'll have to switch to look in the evening.
Southerners will then have a couple of hours before the comet sets. But for those living anywhere north of 50 degrees north latitude, Hale-Bopp will be visible all night long.
And the farther north -- and the farther from urban light pollution -- you are, the better the view.
The celestial spectacle is already worth the early rise for at least some Northern sky-watchers. Yellowknifer Jeff Gardiner has been watching the comet for a couple of weeks now. His yard has an excellent view from a cliff overlooking Yellowknife Bay of Great Slave Lake, but he doesn't even have to go that far.
"When I get up in morning, if it's clear, I can see it through my kitchen window," he says.
In fact, only Mongolia and eastern Siberia, where a solar eclipse will coincide with the comet's appearance, promises a better show.
The comet will make its closest approach to the Earth March 23. That's still about a third again as far from us as we are from the sun. But it should be good enough to provide quite a spectacle, better than last year's Comet Hyakutake, which cold be seen even from within major city limits.
Look east for a fuzzy ball with a vertical tail stretching up and away from the horizon. For the next few weeks, Hale-Bopp will be moving northwards, toward and then just beneath the constellation Cassiopeia -- a large W lying on its side.
For the latest information the comet, the Internet offers dozens of sites. The official NASA site is observe.ivv.nasa.gov.