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Students Enjoy Comet Hyakutake and Lunar Eclipse

By Richard Fletcher

Several hundred students turned out last week to view Comet Hyakutake - the brightest comet to swing by since Comet West in 1976 - through a telescope atop Building 37 on three nights last week.

Stargazers were treated to another celestial event this week with a full lunar eclipse Wednesday night. Clear evening skies permitted an excellent view of the earth's pinkish-brown shadow as it slowly traversed the face of the moon.

For those outside metropolitan areas, the eclipse of the moon also provided observers with the temporary opportunity to view comet Hyakutake without the interfering brightness of the moon.

Comet watchers got a good look

The excursion to see the comet was hosted jointly by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

"The turnout far surpassed my expectations," said Wes A. Watters '98, SEDS astronomy chair.

Although some watchers were disappointed by the intermittent haze and clouds, those lucky or patient enough to have a clear view were delighted - and occasionally astonished - by what they saw, Watters said.

"While spectators waited in line to see the comet's bright [core] through the telescopes, they were handed binoculars and hand-held scopes which they could use to see the comet's coma," or head, which is surrounded by bright gas, Watters said.

Even for those without telescopes, the comet was clearly visible from most spots on campus for most of the week. This was particularly good luck in a large city like Boston, where city lights usually block out almost everything in the evening sky but the moon.

Watters and SEDS member Jeff Foust G were in charge of coordinating the excursions; telescopes were provided by EAPS.

The comet is no longer visible with the naked eye from Cambridge, but can still be seen from rural locations in the early evening or pre-dawn skies near the constellation Perseus.

While comet Hyakatuke won't return for another 18,000 years, stargazers will have another opportunity to view a comet - the dimmer Comet Hale-Bopp - in March of next year.