Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

March 23, 1996

Comet Hyakutake's Past and Future
Credit and Copyright: Herman Mikuz, Crni Vrh Observatory, Slovenia

Explanation: The above false-colour picture of Comet Hyakutake taken just two days ago shows its rapidly developing tail. The comet now has a substantial coma with a bright centre, lending it a dramatic eye-like appearance. This is not Comet Hyakutake's first visit to the inner Solar System. Recent orbital determinations clearly show Comet Hyakutake's was here before, although the previous approach is estimated to be about 8600 years ago - during the epoch of the first recorded human cities. Were this the comet's first trip to the inner Solar System, it probably would not appear as bright as it does now - first time comets typically do not shed as much luminous gas as veterans. Before making any approach to the inner Solar System, Comet Hyakutake was dormant in the Oort cloud of the outer Solar System for a few billion years, along with hundreds of thousands of similar comets. Comet Hyakutake is predicted to become the brightest comet since Comet West in 1976, which rivaled the brightest stars in the sky. Tonight, Comet Hyakutake can be seen best from about 10 pm near the Big Dipper's handle.

Tomorrow's picture: Comet Hyakutake's Closet Approach

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
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