Comet Hyakutake - Orbit


When the first calculations of the comet's orbit were made, scientists realized that it was going to pass just 0.1 AU from the Earth on 25 March. Only four comets in the previous century had passed closer. Comet Haleā€“Bopp was already being discussed as a possible "great comet"; the astronomical community eventually realised that Hyakutake might also become spectacular because of its close approach.

Moreover, the comet's orbit showed that it had last returned to the inner Solar System approximately 17,000 years earlier. Because the comet had probably passed close to the Sun several times before, the approach in 1996 would not be a maiden arrival from the Oort cloud, a place where comets with orbital periods of millions of years come from. Comets entering the inner Solar System for the first time may brighten rapidly before fading as they near the Sun, as a layer of highly volatile material evaporates. This was the case with Comet Kohoutek in 1973; it was initially touted as potentially spectacular, but only appeared moderately bright. Older comets show a more consistent brightening pattern. Thus, all indications suggested Comet Hyakutake would be bright.

Besides approaching close to the Earth, the comet would also be visible throughout the night to northern hemisphere observers at its closest approach because of its path, passing very close to the pole star. This would be an unusual occurrence, because most comets are close to the Sun in the sky when the comets are at their brightest, leading to the comets appearing in a sky not completely dark.

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