Yes, we finally saw it! We really did.
But as the days passed and Romiley continued to languish under seemingly permanent cloud cover,
it began to look as if we'd never make it.
The first glimmer of hope came last Monday night when the sky actually started to clear a little towards the north, and I could see the Pole Star and Ursa Minor. I rushed to get Astronomy Now with the map of the comet's position, flew upstairs for a jacketand in the few minutes it took me to do that the clouds closed in again and stayed that way for the rest of the evening.
The night sky as seen from Romiley on Monday 25 March 1996, 22.15 GMT, looking north (and south, east and west)completely obscured, not a star to be seen never mind a bloody comet.
Next day Philip came home announcing that his business partner, Brendan, had seen it [from Disley]. Was I jealous! Then at lunchtime on Wednesday we had to put up with Granada's weatherman Fred, cavorting round his island in the Mersey where he gives his forecasts and boasting that he'd seen the comet AGAIN. Huh! Were we going to be the only people in the country denied a glimpse of it?
That brought us round to Thursday, when it had already passed its nearest to the Earth. Around ten o'clock Philip reported that the sky was clear but there was no sign of any comet. I don't know quite what he was expecting to seesomething with a great flaming tail stretching across the sky, maybebut I went out, looked north, and spotted a little hazy patch of light in the expected place.
I wouldn't say it was any way conspicuous, in fact if I hadn't known about the comet I would have taken it for a wisp of cloud. Anyway, out came the binoculars [Chinon 10x50 ] and we all had a super view of Hyakutakea big fuzzball with a stumpy tail, just as the experts had described it.
We had another look on Friday and it was noticeably smaller as it sped off on its way to the sun. According to what Patrick Moore said on the radio the tail should develop as the comet passes through perihelion, so it will be a more spectacular object on the way back.
Well, it all depends what you mean by spectacular! I'm glad we managed to get a look at it, though. It's the only decent comet any of us have ever seen, what with Halley being such a washout. I hope you saw it too, but I expect you did, as from the weather maps it looked as if the skies were fairly clear down your way.
Next thing is the total lunar eclipse of April 3-4. It's all go in astronomy these days.
In The Guardian, 15th April 1996, Alan Pickup writes that the comet is much less spectacular than it was at its nearest approach, 15 million kilometres, on March 25th. The fading due to its increasing distance from Earth has clearly not been offset by the expected brightening as it draws closer to perihelion on May 1st, when it will be 34 million km from the Sun.
Perhaps a clue to Hyakutake's performance comes from observations of its icy nucleus and its immediate vicinity. The nucleus appears to be rotating every six hours, while radar reflections from it suggest that it is only 1 to 3 km wide, as compared with the 16 by 8 km nucleus of Halley's comet.
Other observations show clumps of material breaking away from the nucleus and drifting tailwards like short-lived mini-comets, perhaps akin to icebergs calving from a glacier. There is speculation that the comet may be breaking up before our eyes and could fizzle out altogether, like other comets before it, before observers in the southern hemisphere have a chance to watch it recede after perihelion.
Under ideal conditions and away from light pollution, we are told, the tail stretched far across the sky and the head shone as bright as Arcturus, Vega or Capella; but by the Easter weekend it was fainter than Polaris. I wondered where these "ideal conditions" might prevailsomewhere in outer space, maybe.
From Romiley we saw the comet for the last time on April 3rd, the night of the total lunar eclipse, only as the result of a determined sky-sweep by Philip, and even in the binoculars it was only just visible.