StarWatch: Moravian College Astronomy
StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  1997
027    MARCH 2, 1997:   H-B Brightens as Moon Fades
The moon begins the week just after last quarter, rising about 2 a.m. By dawn itís in the south, southeast. As the week progresses, its waning crescent moves eastward and is at the same altitude as Hale-Bopp by Tuesday, but well to the right of the comet. By Thursday, the moon will be difficult to spot near the brightening horizon at 5:30 a.m. Hale-Bopp will also appear to grow brighter as the moonlight fades. It will form a nearly right triangle below the star Deneb and to the left of Altair. Last week H-B was brighter than Deneb, but fainter than Altair. This could easily change during the week as H-B continues to brighten. Follow the progress of Hale-Bopp at the web site noted below. The map below is courtesy of Sky and Telescope.

March 2/3/4/5 (Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday):
Weather conditions have been dismal for the last eight days. The comet was not spotted on any of these mornings due to overcast conditions across the Lehigh Valley.

Saturday, March 8 (early morning):
ASD Planetarium director Gary Becker sighted Hale-Bopp from the parking lot of the Big Bend Motor Inn at 5:30 a.m. It was magnificent, with a 10 degree ion tail and a 7 degree dust tail. The ion tail extended out to M39 in the constellation Cygnus. The comet's brightness easily surpassed Altair and seemed to be a close match with Vega and Arcturus. The comet was probably a little bit on the fainter side of these two stars, but that was hard to determine conclusively...

Sunday, March 8 (evening):
Gary Becker reports: "The plan was to spend the night at Sotel Mesa in Big Bend National Park to photograph Hale-Bopp. The evening started clear with some distant clouds to the southwest, but they advanced... so that by 2:30am generally cloudy conditions prevailed. Several storms to the north added some additional lights in the sky (i.e. lightning!), but when it began to rain, THAT put an end to all hopes of imaging the comet. We got back to camp at 4:00 a.m. and observed the comet about 35 minutes before sunrise (which was 6:30 a.m.). A tail was easily noted on H-B, and its brightness was still comparable to Vega."
028    MARCH 9, 1997:   Mars and Hale-Bopp
That brilliant object that you may have noticed in the east, about 9 p.m., is the planet Mars. Its solitary appearance is enhanced by its location in a rather bland region of the spring sky. Look at Marsí color closely. Yes, that is what astronomers call red! Again as far above the horizon as Mars will be the bright star Regulus of Leo, the Lion. Itís no match for the God of War, shining at nearly 20 times its brightness. Comet Hale-Bopp in the morning sky is splendid. H-Bís position has now moved below and to the left of the star Deneb. The comet will be found about one third of the way up in the sky by dawn. Its tail should be short but distinct. Be at your observing location no later than 5:15 a.m. Hale-Bopp will continue to increase in brilliance for at least another month. Follow its daily progress at the web site noted below.

Tuesday, March 11 (early morning):
Gary Becker reports the latest on H-B from New Mexico: "The ion tail of Comet Hale-Bopp was observed about 45 minutes before the comet rose... by about 2:30 a.m. The comet rose at about 3:10 a.m. and was easily visible as a comet-like body right on horizon! The straight ion tail was estimated to be 11 degrees in length, while the obviously curved, fan-shaped dust tail extended upward away from the comet approximately 7 degrees. Again, the comet was observed well into dawn, up to about 30 minutes before sunrise, still posessing an easily discernible tail." The photo below is of Comet Hale-Bopp taken by Gary Becker at 4:45 a.m., March 11, from Star Hill Inn in Sapello, NM. Fifteen minutes later the second image was shot using an ultra wide-angle lens showing how the comet as it appeared to the unaided eye.



Wednesday, March 12 (evening):
Gary Becker reports from El Malpais National Monument, NM: "The first evening that we saw H-B, the moon was about 4 days old... a brilliant crescent in the southwest. The comet was easily spotted about 45 minutes after sunset in the northwest. Despite moonlight and the comet's low altitude, a dust tail of about 5 degrees was still easily visible with binoculars, stretching out parallel to the horizon.

Thursday, March 13 (evening):
Becker reports: "Hale-Bopp was spotted from the El Malpais lava fields on our way back to Grants, NM... easily seen right through the van windows!"

Sunday, March 15 (early morning):
Up in Chaco Canyon in northwestern NM, members of the Dieruff Academy met up with park archaeoastronomer and seasonal ranger Great Bear and was treated to exceptionally dark skies. This was by far the best observation of H-B made to date. Gary A. Becker reports: "The comet has now become brighter than any other star in the sky at the time, with an estimated magnitude of -0.5 to -1.0. H-B's ion tail measured 13 degrees with a dust tail about 8 degrees long. The tail remained visible 30 minutes prior to sunrise, and telescopically it persisted until 19 minutes before sunrise! Visually, H-B's coma became indistinct about 24 minutes before sunrise, and only 7 minutes before sunrise through a telescope! Morning temperatures were in the mid 20s.

Comet Hale-Bopp finder chart
029    MARCH 16, 1997:   Partial Lunar Eclipse and Hale-Bopp
The moon will be in a waxing gibbous phase by Sunday evening. Note how the terminator, the dividing line between day and night, bulges outward on both "sides". Thatís what gibbous means. The moon becomes more bulbous and brighter as the week progresses. When it is full on Sunday the 23rd, the moon will be eclipsed by Earth's shadow. The show starts just before 10 p.m. and continues until nearly 1:30 a.m. Itís a partial lunar eclipse with about 90 percent of the moon immersed in the earthís shadow by 11:40 p.m. Binoculars or a small telescope will make your viewing enjoyment even greater. Donít forget about Hale-Bopp glowing brightly, low in the northeast about 4:45 a.m. After full moon switch your observing direction towards the northwest about 7:45 p.m. For the next several weeks the comet should be at its peak brightness. Now it will be visible in the evening sky right after darkness. Daily H-B observations will be posted at the web address given below. The map below is courtesy of Sky and Telescope.

Sunday, March 16 (early morning):
Gary Becker photographed the comet in Chaco Canyon, NM between 4 and 5 am under incredibly clear skies and subfreezing temps. Observations were similar to the morning before.

Monday, March 17 (evening):
In downtown Williams, AZ... by the laundromat and next to the train station... with two sodium vapor lights in direct line of sight, the comet with tail was easily spotted.

Comet Hale-Bopp finder chart

SKY Online's Comet Page Hale's and Tom Bopp's Home Page
Comets: Views of the Solar System

030a  MARCH 23, 1997:   Partial Lunar Eclipse Tonight
Tonight the moon is full and it is partially eclipsed by the earth's shadow. A lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, moon, and earth are aligned so precisely that the earth's shadow can fall onto the moon. The moon begins entering the umbra (shadow) at 9:58 p.m., but you should notice the lower left portion of the moon appearing dusky by 9:30. By this time the moon will be deep within the penumbra, a location where if you were on the moon, the earth would be nearly eclipsed by the sun. The moon moves 90 percent into the umbra by 11:39 p.m. and then begins to reemerge. Not until 1:22 a.m. on the 24th will the moon be fully exited from the earth's shadow. Then there will be another half hour of duskiness centered on the 4:30 position of the lunar disk before it is visually all over.

Monday, March 23 (evening):
Observations of the partial lunar eclipse were made at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico with North Elementary students and White Sands park astronomy enthusiast, John Mangimeli. With Hale-Bopp easily visible in the Northwest, and the full moon dazzling us in the east, we were escorted about five miles into the park to view the eclipse on a large gypsum sand dune. By 7:30 p.m., MST, it was easily evident that the moon was pressing into the penumbra, and 30 minutes later the event was underway. As the eclipse proceeded and the brightly reflective landscape of the dunes became subdued, stars and constellations became more readily visible and the comet's tail nearly doubled in length. At greatest immersion, about 9:40 p.m., the shadowed portion of the moon appeared reddish brown through telescopes. The comet unfortunately was lost in haze and low clouds that clung several degrees above the northwestern horizon.
030b  MARCH 24, 1997:   Hale-Bopp Switches to Evenings
Comet Hale-Bopp reigns supreme for the next three weeks, and because of its changing position, the comet's prime time views are now occurring in the evening. At 7:30 p.m. the comet will be about two fist widths above the northwestern horizon. Time, good northwestern horizons, and clear skies are critical at this point. Earth's rotation now carries the comet closer to the horizon, so you must be at your location by 7:30 p.m. Light pollution, trees, and buildings may block H-B's location because of its low position. It may be worth investigating an observing site during daylight to ensure it fits all of the requirements. If you missed Hyakutake last year or saw it as a fuzzy blob near the North Star, REJOICE, because the urban comet has arrive. H-B will look distinctly like a comet with a small tail pointing away from the sun. Daily observations of H-B are posted at the net sight listed below.

Tuesday, March 25 (evening):
Returning from the Dieruff Academy Southwesten Field Experience, Hale-Bopp was easily observed enroute between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Visually the tail appeared about 5 degrees in length. The brightest portions of H-B remained visible as we passed through downtown Tulsa.

Wednesday, March 26 (evening):
Similar H-B observations were made west of Wheeling, West Virginia during twilight and early evening. More light pollution and a sky that was not quite as clear as the day before made the tail appear slightly shorter.

Thursday, March 27 (evening):
Hale-Bopp was photographed from Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park, west of Lehnhartsville, PA. The comet became easily visible about 40 minutes after sunset and was in continual observation until about 10 p.m. when it intersected the tree-lined horizon. Visually the dust tail was about 5 degrees long, while a faint ion tail about 7 degrees was seen with averted vision. Photographically, the curved dust tail appeared to extend about 7 degrees away from the bright head, while the straight, blue, ion tail was about twice as long. Telescopically, numerous arcuate hoods could be seen within the comatic structure of the head as reported by Ray Harris of Macungie, who was observing and photographing the comet at the same time. Sky conditions were clear.

Saturday, March 29 (evening):
Hale-Bopp was easily spotted from Coopersburg, well before dark in the northwest above a cloudy horizon. Through binoculars the comet's tail appeared to be about 4 degrees at 8:45 p.m. when it was much nearer to the horizon. Sky conditions were hazy clear at the time.
031    MARCH 30, 1997:   Hale-Bopp Spectacular Continues
If the weather is cooperative, you will now be viewing Hale-Bopp for the next two weeks without any major lunar interference. The moon will be a waxing crescent in the southwest by the end of this period. If you donít catch the comet now, you will have missed one of the great astronomical events of the 20th century. The comet can be located in the northwest about 45 minutes after sunset. H-B with its small tail will be totally obvious. Just look! To H-Bís left and above will be the bright star Aldebaran (West) and farther left, the constellation of Orion (WSW) with its three belt stars pointing in the general direction of H-B. If you want to observe Hale-Bopp through telescopes, the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society will be hosting a weeklong star party from Monday through Friday, April 7-12 from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. For more details about the comet and directions to the LVAAS, link to the ASD Planetariumís web site below or call 610-797-3476. Clear skies! The map below is courtesy of Sky and Telescope.

Directions to the LVAAS

Tuesday, April 1 (evening):
A windy but crystal clear evening greeted the Lehigh Valley making the comet appear bright against a blacker than usual sky. I estimated H-B's magnitude to be about -1. It was much brighter than the star Capella which shines at magnitude +0.05 and which is relatvely close to the comet. From Coopersburg, looking through binoculars, the curved dust tail stretched back about 8 degrees. It was about that long to the unaided eye also. This was the first time from Coopersburg that I was able to discern the stright ion tail through binoculars. I wouldn't want to guarantee that I saw it naked eye, however. All in all, except for the chilly air conditions, this evening was the best suburban viewing that I have had to date.

Wednesday, April 2 (evening):
I almost forgot to go out and view the comet this evening. H-B was spotted about 5 degrees above the horizon at tree level at 9:30 p.m. The comet showed a distinct, short tail even at this low altitude.

Friday, April 4 (evening):
Comet Hale-Bopp was easily spotted right outside the ASD Planetarium at Dieruff High School after an evening program given to a YMCA Indian Guide group. The children, first through third graders, found the comet amid trees and sodium vapor lamps immediately upon exiting the Planetarium. No adult help was provided. The comet's tail was about 2 degrees in length, and appeared fan-shaped with linear striations through a 4-1/4 inch Astroscan telescope at 18X.

Comet Hale-Bopp finder chart