When, Where, and How
to See Comet Hale-Bopp

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By Alan MacRobert

An Online Viewing Guide from
Sky & Telescope

Comet Hale-Bopp, March 12th

Above: Sky & Telescope's Dennis di Cicco obtained this view of Comet Hale-Bopp before the start of morning twilight on March 12th at a dark-sky location south of Boston, Massachusetts. He made this 3-minute exposure on Fujicolor Super G800 film with an 8-inch f/1.5 Schmidt camera -- essentially a 300-mm f/1.5 telephoto lens. The field of view measures about 5 degrees wide (about 10 times the diameter of the full Moon) and is shown with celestial west up and north to the left. At the time the comet was brighter than anything else in the eastern predawn sky. Its dust tail, which appears pearly white in this view, was easily visible to the unaided eye, even from moderately light-polluted locations. The blue ion tail can be seen with binoculars or, from darker locations, with the unaided eye. Click on the small image above to pull up a larger version (24K jpeg). We also offer a high-resolution version suitable for publication in newspapers and magazines (585K jpeg); please credit Dennis di Cicco and Sky & Telescope.

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THE SPRING OF THE COMET is about to begin. Comet Hale-Bopp, discovered by two backyard astronomers in July 1995, has been brightening for the last year and a half on its approach to the inner solar system. Now it has finally arrived in the vicinity of the Sun and Earth, and the show is under way. Already the comet is easy to see with the naked eye.

Comet Hale-Bopp will put on its best display from late March through mid-April. It should remain visible to the naked eye through early May. Get ready for an astronomical news event that billions will want to see for themselves.

This is the second bright comet to enter our skies in a year. Comet Hale-Bopp will at least be the equal of Comet Hyakutake, which was seen by a large fraction of the human race in late March 1996.

But the two comets will be rather different. Hale-Bopp is inherently much larger and brighter, but we will see it from much farther away (122 million miles at its closest, compared to Hyakutake's 9 million miles).

Hyakutake's best showing lasted only a week or two, but Hale-Bopp is in good view from now through the beginning of May.

Comet Hale-Bopp (13K jpeg) Comet Hale-Bopp is obvious in the twilight sky over Johnny Horne's observatory in Stedman, North Carolina, on the morning of March 9th. Horne snapped this 10-second exposure with a 35-mm f/2.8 lens and Fuji SG 800 film. © 1997 Fayetteville Observer-Times.

Millions of people remember how Comet Hyakutake looked: like a large, aquamarine-colored fuzzball with a long, straight tail that was easily hidden by light pollution. Hale-Bopp will appear smaller but brighter and more concentrated, mostly white or yellow-white in color, with a shorter, possibly strongly curved tail. Its nearly starlike head should easily shine through the skyglow that hangs over heavily populated areas -- if you know when and where to look.

Comet Hale-Bopp (25K jpeg) Comet Hale-Bopp was the brightest object in the northeastern sky when amateur astronomer David Bridges of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, photographed it on the morning of March 6th. He used a 50-millimeter f/2.0 lens and Fujicolor SG+ 400 film. The 4-minute exposure was guided with a barn-door mount. Note the red North America and Pelican nebulae just above the end of the comet's blue gas tail. © 1997 David Bridges.

Nobody should miss the chance to see this astronomical marvel! The information here will enable you to find and view the comet for yourself even if you have no skywatching experience.

Remember that a comet does not shoot across the sky like a meteor. It will remain visible night after night for weeks on end, like a star or planet.

Comet Hale-Bopp (13K jpeg) Inbound Comet Hale-Bopp is showing more intricate structure with each passing day as it hangs in the predawn sky. Johnny Horne of Stedman, North Carolina, made this 15-minute exposure on Sunday morning, March 9th, through his 12-inch telescope. Since he guided on the comet, background stars appear as short streaks. Hale-Bopp is closest to the sun on April 1st and will become increasingly visible in the early evening sky during late March. © 1997 Fayetteville Observer-Times.

Comet Hale-Bopp will best be seen from the world's north temperate (and arctic) latitudes. Skywatchers in the tropics will find the comet much lower to the horizon, and those in the Southern Hemisphere largely miss out. The timetable and descriptions below are written for north temperate latitudes (North America, Europe, and most of Asia).


First, find a dark viewing site. To see the comet well you'll need to get away from glary outdoor lights. And you'll have a vastly better view if you get away to the country, out from under the milky glow of light pollution that fills the night sky over cities and suburbs and washes out our view of most of the universe.

On the other hand, this comet is so bright that you can see at least some of it even through poor conditions. So don't be discouraged by light pollution! If you can see even a few stars, you can see Comet Hale-Bopp.

Binoculars or a small telescope, of course, will give a more detailed view. First find the comet with your naked eyes, then switch to whatever optical instrument you may have. If you have a telescope, use its lowest magnification. This will provide the best view.

Comet Hale-Bopp (32K jpeg) Astroimager David Hanon of Ringgold, Georgia, captured this close-up of Comet Hale-Bopp on February 23rd using a 7-inch f/9 Astro-Physics refractor on a custom-built Byers mount and an SBIG ST-8 CCD camera. According to Sky & Telescope's Rick Fienberg, this is almost exactly how the comet looked in 16 x 70 binoculars during morning twilight on March 7th, from just outside downtown Boston, Massachusetts. © 1997 David Hanon.

Comet Hale-Bopp (81K jpeg) Through a telescope Comet Hale-Bopp displays a wealth of jets and streamers. Tim Puckett obtained this image using a Meade 12-inch LX200 telescope at f/6 and an Apogee AP-7 CCD camera. His composite of 27 30-second exposures began at 10:16 Universal Time on March 9th and has been enhanced to reveal fine detail in the comet's tail. And here's a treat: Puckett has created an MPEG video (305K) from 68 30-second exposures made between 10:16 and 11:06 UT. Television reporters interested in using is movie on the air should visit the Puckett Observatory Web site for more information. © 1997 Tim Puckett.

By late February, binoculars were already revealing tiny, bright jets of material emerging from the comet's brilliant core. These curved away to form a hood-shaped head, and the hood in turn trailed off into a broad, dim tail. In very dark, rural skies free of light pollution, the tail appeared double, consisting of a straight tail of bluish gas and a curved tail of whitish dust.

You'll need to know where to look. Here is Sky & Telescope magazine's viewing calendar for "the Great Comet of 1997."

NOTE: The sky charts accompanying this article are copyright © 1997 by Sky Publishing Corporation. We are pleased to make them available for use by print and broadcast reporters and other representatives of the news media, on condition that you credit Sky & Telescope magazine as your source and refer readers or viewers to this Web site, SKY Online, at http://www.skypub.com/. High-resolution graphics suitable for reproduction in print are also available; contact Irene Szewczuk at 617-864-7360 ext. 127 or send e-mail to irenes@skypub.com for details. Sorry, but we cannot grant permission to use our illustrations on other Web sites; Webmasters should link their sites to this page instead. Thank you very much, and enjoy the comet!


March 1-10. The comet is up before the first light of dawn. Set your alarm clock for about an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise (look up your local sunrise time in a local newspaper). Step outdoors and look east-northeast. Comet Hale-Bopp is shining there moderately high. It's about as bright as the brightest stars, with a hazy head and a dimmer, filmy tail extending to the upper left.

Comet Hale-Bopp, Early March, MorningWhere to look for Comet Hale-Bopp in the March morning sky. Left: Early March (59K jpeg). Right: Late March (62K jpeg). The comet's path is plotted against the background stars for a two-week period; symbols show its position at viewing time for North America on the civil dates indicated. In each panel the horizon has been drawn in for 1½ hours before sunrise at 40° north latitude for the middle date on the comet's track. The comet and stars will be slightly lower to the horizon than they appear here before that date, and higher after.Comet Hale-Bopp, Late March, Morning

March 10-19. The comet remains fairly high in the predawn sky. It is shifting a little left toward the northeast and gradually brightening.

But by now the comet is also becoming visible low in the evening sky too! Look low in the northwest just as the last glow of twilight is fading out. Again, look for a hazy star with a dim tail. When the comet is seen in the evening sky, its tail extends to the upper right. Each night Comet Hale-Bopp gains altitude and becomes a little easier to find after dusk.

Moonlight starts flooding the evening sky around March 16th, compromising the view of the dim outer parts of the tail. But the comet's increasing height and brightness may just about make up for the worsening effect of moonlight. If you want a moonless view as late as the night of March 19-20, continue looking just before dawn.

Comet Hale-Bopp, Early March, EveningComet Hale-Bopp at the end of evening twilight in March. Left: Early March (55K jpeg). Right: Late March (56K jpeg). In each panel the comet's path is plotted against the background stars for a two-week period; symbols show the comet's position (for North America) on the civil dates indicated. The horizon has been added for 1¼ hours after sunset in the left-hand panel and 1½ hours after sunset in the right-hand one. In each case the horizon is drawn for 40° north latitude for the middle date on the comet's track. The comet and stars will be higher above the horizon before that date, and lower after.Comet Hale-Bopp, Late March, Evening

March 20-22. The ever-brightening comet is now easy to spot fairly high in the northwest after dusk. Meanwhile before the first light of dawn, it has started to sink a bit lower in the northeast -- so that it's now balanced equally high at both times. A bright Moon is in the sky at both times as well.

March 23. This is a big night for skywatchers! The full Moon undergoes a deep partial eclipse that will be visible throughout most of the Americas (and western Europe on the morning of the 24th). Above or to the upper right of the eclipsed Moon will be the bright orange planet Mars, separated from the Moon by a little more than the width of your fist at arm's length. For more on this spectacular lunar eclipse, including a timetable of events, see the March issue of Sky & Telescope, page 82.

Comet watchers on the West Coast, especially the Pacific Northwest, get an added bonus. The eclipse will cleanse the sky of most moonlight from about 8:15 to 9:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, right in prime comet-watching time.

March 24 - April 10. This is the peak of Comet Hale-Bopp's performance. Look well up in the northwestern sky after the end of evening twilight. The Moon is low in the east at the end of twilight on March 24th and is just rising on the 25th. Then the sky is moonless for the next two weeks.

During this time Comet Hale-Bopp is high enough that it will remain in good view for well over an hour after the end of twilight -- though the earlier you look after twilight, the higher it will be. (In fact the comet doesn't actually set until almost three hours after twilight ends as seen from near 40 degrees north latitude.)

Comet Hale-Bopp, Early April, EveningComet Hale-Bopp at the end of evening twilight in April. Left: Early April (65K jpeg). Right: Late April (60K jpeg). In each panel the comet's path is plotted against the background stars for a two-week period; symbols show the comet's position (for North America) on the civil dates indicated. The horizon has been added for 1½ hours after sunset, and the horizon is drawn for 40° north latitude for the middle date on the comet's track. The comet and stars will be higher above the horizon before that date, and lower after.Comet Hale-Bopp, Late April, Evening

The comet's head may shine at about magnitude 0, as bright as the star Capella (which is sparkling much higher in the west-northwestern sky). Anyone able to get away from glary city lights should be treated to an awe-inspiring spectacle: the comet's brilliant, starlike pseudo-nucleus in a hood-shaped head or coma trailed by a thin, bluish ion (gas) tail and a broad, curved, yellowish dust tail, both extending upward.

April 11-15. The comet has moved a little to the left; look west-northwest now after the end of twilight.

The waxing crescent Moon returns to the western evening sky during this period, growing thicker and brightening each night. At first its light has little or no effect. But as the days go by the moonlight will increasingly brighten the sky.

April 16-23. Comet Hale-Bopp is fading now and getting somewhat lower in the west-northwest, and moonlight fills the evening sky, washing out our view of celestial objects. Even so, the comet should still be plainly visible to the naked eye.

April 24 - May 7. The comet continues to fade and sink lower in the west-northwest at the end of twilight, but now the Moon is gone. How late into the spring can you follow the comet with the naked eye? With binoculars?

May 8. The last hurrah. This evening the thin crescent Moon could form a dramatic tableau with Comet Hale-Bopp -- which, however, may have become increasingly difficult to see low in the fading glow of sunset. First spot the Moon in the western sky in late twilight. The comet is 4 or 5 degrees to the Moon's upper right -- about as far from the Moon as the width of three fingers held at arm's length. Both objects will fit into a typical binocular's field of view (appearing on opposite sides of the view).

During the next week or two, try following the fading comet right down into the sunset with the naked eye or binoculars.


While Comet Hale-Bopp is sinking out of good view from northern latitudes, observers in South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand -- who have not seen the comet since last November -- begin to have their turn to witness the show.

By about the end of April, viewers there should be able to catch sight of the comet very low in the northwest in early evening hours.

As April progresses into May, the comet climbs higher into far-southerners' evening skies. By late May, when their northern counterparts are losing sight of it, Southern Hemisphere watchers will still find the comet fairly high above the horizon well after dusk's end. Although Hale-Bopp will have faded substantially from its peak brightness, a fairly long tail may still be visible. Thus, there is a possibility that observers below the equator will be treated to a decent display after all.

And Southern Hemisphere viewers with telescopes will be well placed to follow the comet's slow recession into the distant outer solar system for the next couple of years.


For more information about Comet Hale-Bopp, including tips on viewing it through a telescope and capturing images with conventional or electronic cameras, please see the March and April 1997 issues of Sky & Telescope magazine. Additional information is also available right here on SKY Online:
CNNCable TV viewers might wish to check out CNN's Science & Technology Week every Saturday at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. S&T Senior Editor J. Kelly Beatty will be featured on the program airing March 15th!

Special Reprint Offer for Comet-Watchers!

Clear skies, and happy viewing!

Alan MacRobert is an associate editor of Sky & Telescope and an accomplished backyard astronomer. S&T is the world's most authoritative popular astronomy magazine, published monthly since 1941 and read by almost 200,000 amateurs and professionals worldwide.

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