Gary Seronik captured this photo of magnificent Comet Hale-Bopp on the evening of April 3, 1997.
By Gary Seronik
Few things excite backyard astronomers more than hearing about a new comet. At the moment, Comet Lovejoy (also designated C/2014 Q2) is making its way north and generating a fair bit of interest. But when it comes to comets, low expectations are the key to happiness. In my observing life, I’ve witnessed more than my share of duds, but I’ve also been lucky enough to see a few spectacles too.
The complete list of duds is longer than I care to recount. I still remember my childhood disappointment when Comet Kohoutek failed to pan out. That was supposed to be a bright Christmas comet back in 1973. It wasn’t. Remember Comet Austin? Probably not. It was another much-hyped fizzle. Even the normally reliable Halley’s Comet didn’t meet expectations when visited the inner solar-system in the mid-1980’s.The most recent cometary bust was last year’s Comet ISON. That one didn’t survive its close encounter with the Sun.
But in spite of the disappointments, I count myself as lucky when it comes to comets. You see, in the 1990’s I was around to witness two spectacular visitors: Comet Hale-Bopp and Comet Hyakutake. Both were beyond breathtaking, but they were also very different from each other. Hale-Bopp was a long time coming. I got my first look in August 1995 — almost two years before it reached its peak brightness. And once it finally arrived in the spring of 1997, it hung around in the evening sky for weeks. It was a bright, bold comet that I was even able to enjoy from my apartment living room in downtown Vancouver. By contrast, Hyakutake arrived like a shot in the dark. While we were waiting for Hale-Bopp to brighten up, Hyakutake appeared unexpectedly and put on a great show. It was a wonderful sight for about a week, but especially awe-inspiring one night only: March 24/25, 1996. That’s when it had its close approach with Earth. Hyakutake sported a bright coma and a long diaphanous tail that stretched most of the way across the sky. It was unforgettable.
While this new Comet Lovejoy hasn’t the potential to be a Hale-Bopp or Hyakutake, it’ll probably turn out to be a respectable sight — the type of comet that turns up every few years. But, even if it doesn’t, that’s okay. Having been lucky enough to see two great comets, I’d consider another one a wonderful bonus.