Stargazers say Comet Hyakutake is brightening nicely as it rushes toward its closest approach to Earth on Monday, making this weekend a prime viewing opportunity. Happily, Maryland's skies are expected to clear.
"It's visible even in the light-polluted area of Abingdon," said Larry Hubble, an amateur astronomer in Harford County. (He doesn't think he's related to famed astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope was named.) "I actually saw it with the naked eye a little fuzzy ball in the sky."
Lucy Albert, secretary of the Harford County Astronomical Society, said she has talked to people in states to our west who "are all reporting the same thing."
"It's largish, fuzzy, with a bright center," she said. "There is a bit of an elongation to one side, which might be a hint of a tail."
Amateur astronomy groups and public observatories in the region are planning star parties, and professional astronomers are preparing their most intensive observations for the next several days.
Good viewing should continue into early April, but the comet will recede from view as it soars toward the sun and into its glare.
Chunks of debris
Comets are chunks of dust, ice and frozen gases several miles in diameter. As they approach the sun, they grow warmer and their surface ices turn into gas, liberating trapped dust particles. The gas and dust form a bright cloud or "coma" around the solid comet.
Dr. Nalin Samarasinha, an astronomer at Kitt Peak National Observatory, near Tucson, Ariz., said Hyakutake (pronounced hiya-koo-TAH-key) has increased its production of dust in recent days. That's good news for stargazers because it's the dust that makes a comet bright to the human eye.
Scientists are already analyzing light from Hyakutake's coma to determine its chemistry. They believe comets change little over the eons, so their chemical composition may hold clues to the materials and conditions present when the the sun and planets were formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Only 9.5 million miles away
On Monday the comet will pass within 9.5 million miles of the North Pole about 40 times the distance to the moon, but next door by astronomical yardsticks.
By 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. tomorrow, , the April issue of magazine, or at the magazine's Internet site, at http: //www.skypub.com ).
The Westminster Astronomical Society invites the public to see the comet tomorrow night from the Bear Branch Nature Center, Hashawha Environmental Center, 300 John Owings Road. Information: 848-2517.
The observatory atop the Johns Hopkins University's physics and astronomy building off San Martin Drive will open, weather permitting, at 10 tonight, 9 p.m. tomorrow and at sunset Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Information: 516-7351.
Pub Date: 3/22/96