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Catch a Falling Comet 

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By Renaldo Migaldi

Comet Hyakutake caught me by surprise. I was so busy piddling around with my life that when I heard news reports of a big comet on the way, I assumed they were referring to Comet Hale-Bopp, which astromomers have been tracking since last July and cautiously hope will be a spectacle early next year. By the time I realized that this was a different comet, discovered on January 30 by a Japanese amateur astronomer--professionals generally don't have time for the tedious task of comet searching--Hyakutake was already nearing its closest approach to earth, 9.3 million miles, closer than any other celestial object save the moon.

Then came a letter from my friend Ken, saying with several exclamation points that he'd spotted Comet Hyakutake from his backyard in rural Michigan. This got me mad at myself. Sure, I would have to contend with urban light pollution--but a friend in Tokyo had E-mailed me that he couldn't see a thing because it had been raining there for days. At least the Chicago skies were cloud free.

It was a cold night. I walked to a dark part of my neighborhood where I could hang over a fence and shield my eyes against the glare of street lamps. Up in the sky, there it was: a milky ball glowing eerily in the darkness above the trees.

If only I were in the country, I told myself, I might be able to see the tail. Then again, I might not. It was too late to rent a car. So I went home and started making long-distance phone calls.

"Hi, ma. Have you seen the comet?"

"I'm not sure."

"Have you been out looking for it?"

"I just came in a half hour ago."

"Is your sky clear tonight?"

"Oh yes, real clear. Right after supper I went outside and looked. I think I saw it, but I'm not sure."

"What did it look like?"

"It was real bright. It looked just like a star, except brighter."

"Were you facing west?"

"That's right, west!"

"That's not the comet. That's the planet Venus."

"Oh," said my mother disappointed. "I had a feeling that wasn't it."

"Well, you saw Venus, and that's something. But tonight you want to look north. Just face north and look up. You'll find it right next to the North Star."

"OK, I'll go out there tonight. Did you eat today?"

"Yeah, ma, I ate."

Next I called John, my oldest friend, who lives in a big house in the country outside Detroit.

"Are you on your cordless?" I asked him.

"Yowp."

"I want you to do something for me. Ready?"

"Sure."

"First I want you to turn off all the lights on the outside of your house."

There was a pause. "OK, I'm doing that right now."

"Good," I said. "Now I want you to put on your coat. We're gonna go outdoors."

"OK. Hear that beeping noise?" He laughed. "It's my burglar alarm system!"

"Get your ass outside."

"OK, now I'm in the driveway."

"Damn, your voice sounds clear." For some reason I am still amazed by cordless telephones. "Now I'd like you to face north."

"North."

"You know which way is north?"

"Oh, fuck you. I know where north is."

"All right, now look up. About a 45-degree angle."

Pause.

"Are you looking?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"Tell me what you see."

"Nothing. Stars."

"Look harder," I demanded. "See anything that doesn't look like a star?"

"Kind of hard to tell. It's sort of...hazy."

"Hazy!" It hadn't even occurred to me to ask about the weather. "You got clouds there?"

"Well...I think so, a little."

"You don't sound sure."

John sighed. He was losing patience.

"Do you see something that looks like a tiny cloud with a light shining inside it?"

"Yeah, that's right. Only it's not so tiny."

"That's not a cloud, John. It's Comet Hyakutake. Have you been listening to the news?"

"That's it?" he said incredulously. "I'm looking right at it? Damn, it's big."

"How big?"

"Almost as big as my hand. It's just a big blurry ball of light."

"Can you see a tail?"

"I think so. But I'm not sure."

"It should be going up and to the right."

"Yeah! Up and to the right, there it is! But this is weird--I can see it better if I look a little bit away from it."

"That's an old astronomers' trick for looking at faint objects. The most light-sensitive part of your retina is slightly off center."

"Yeah, that's the tail all right. Damn, that thing is big!"

"You have a hell of a view," I said enviously.

"And you can see it from Chicago?"

"Oh, sure. But it looks a lot smaller here, and there's no tail."

"You know, there's something here that also looks weird. It's like a star, low in the west, but super, super bright."

"That's Venus. Listen, I have one more thing I want you to do."

"Yeah?"

"I want you to show the comet to your wife and kids."

"Yeah, well--"

"Better do it now. The view tonight is as good as it's gonna get. From now on the comet's gonna move to the west and be a little worse each day. In a week or two it'll be gone."

"Yeah, you're right. I'll do it."

After that conversation I bundled up and went back outside. Standing in the middle of my quiet street, I raised one arm to block out the glare of the street lamps and could clearly see the fuzzy patch of light hanging above the trees. My binoculars brought out the contours of the coma, the large ball of gas and dust surrounding the comet's nucleus, a tiny starlike point of light. The 1986 spacecraft pictures of Comet Halley revealed that comet's nucleus as a nine-by-five-mile island of ice and dust with its own craters, mountains, and unearthly sense of place. But Comet Hyakutake's nucleus is much smaller, perhaps only a mile wide. Rotating once every six hours and drifting most of the time in the awful void far beyond Pluto, its orbit brings it into the vicinity of the sun only once every 10,000 to 15,000 years. During these few months, excited by gases and radiation emanating from the sun, it brightens and grows a filmy, tenuous tail. Then back out into the distant darkness.

Later that evening there were more phone calls. A local artist friend called, one of those wonderful people who can walk down an ordinary street pointing out beautiful things you might otherwise never notice, like unusual iron window bars. She'd heard me jabber about the comet the evening before, and tonight she was staying with her parents in the western suburbs. "It's beautiful!" she said. "The tail goes halfway across the sky!"

I also spoke with my cousins Angie and Brad, who live in the country outside Lansing, Michigan. "We've been watching it every clear night for the past week," said Angie. "Tonight it's right out our back picture window. After supper Brad and I turned off all the lights and sat around the kitchen table with the kids just looking at it. Last night we watched the Oscars. Every time there was a commercial we went out to see the comet again. It kept changing!"

"That's nice," I said. "Your kids are just about old enough now to remember this when they grow up."

"Yeah, but I have real mixed feelings about it."

"Mixed feelings?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's really cool and everything, but I kinda feel like those things are harbingers of evil."

"It's just a big chunk of dirty ice," I said. "But you're not the first person to feel that way about a comet."

"What if it hit the earth?"

"It's not gonna hit the earth."

After that call I went to my bathroom window, from which I can see a tiny patch of sky to the north. On a clear night I can always see the North Star winking at me as I stand at the sink. And there was that damn comet again, hanging in the darkness just a few million miles beyond my neighbor's clay chimney pipe. It seemed strangely incongruous, even surreal--a piece of the sky that just didn't belong. The starry firmament usually inspires one with a sense of serene order--even the planets are predictable in their motions. But here was a piece of chaos intruding. Comet Hyakutake is by no means as spectacular as they get; the annals of astronomy abound with accounts of comets with six bright tails, comets brilliant enough to be seen in daytime, comets that split in two without warning. But seeing even a moderate-sized specimen like Hyakutake can make your spine crackle. What if it hit the earth? Millions of people would probably die, that's all.

The phone rang. My mother again. "I just wanted to tell you I saw it," she said. "It almost looks like it's moving."

"Well, it is. But not fast enough for you to see, I don't think. Where's dad?"

"Right here watching TV."

"Did you show him the comet?"

"He doesn't want to see it. He says it's too cold outside."

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