The Comet Hyakutake Photo Shoot

A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

[hyaku3a_s.jpg]   [hyakutake2_s.jpg]

The Phoenix, Arizona area had good, clear weather for seeing Comet Hyakutake as it made its closest approach in late March, 1996. Rick Scott and I had seen the comet at various times of night from our back yards in the suburbs. But with all the city lights, the tail (if it could be seen at all) was faint and short. So we made plans to get away to dark skies to see the comet in all its glory.

We predicted that the night of March 26-27 would be the ideal night for photographing the comet; because of its proximity to the North Star, one wouldn't even need to use a star-tracker! But because the weather forecast threatened increasing clouds, we decided to go out one day earlier and use Rick's tracker for the photos. We left town at midnight on the night of March 25-26, drove about an hour east of town and found a remote site near Florence Junction to view the comet.

It was fabulous! In the clear dark sky after moonset, the tail could be seen extending at least 50 degrees across the sky! This was by far the best comet we had ever seen, much better than Halley ten years earlier -- truly the Great Comet of 1996! We spent the next 4 hours photographing the comet, shooting an entire 36-exposure roll of 1600-speed slide film with a variety of lenses and painstakingly recording the carefully-calculated exposures. We got ZERO sleep but it was worth it anticipating the beautiful comet photos we would have to show everyone.

Here's the punchline: when we got back to town near sunrise, we discovered the film hadn't loaded properly in the camera -- we got ZERO pictures!!!

So did we just give up like any sane person would? Heck no! The next night (the night we had originally planned to go out anyway) would be the last night with enough hours of moonless sky to take decent pictures of this fleeting comet, so we went back out there and did it all over again! Luckily the weather remained clear.

This time the film was loaded properly and we got a lot of good pictures. The best one, the untracked photo showing the comet behind a saguaro cactus, was on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day site on May 1, 1996, and was on the cover of Robert Burnham's book Comet Hale-Bopp: Find and Enjoy the Great Comet.

The close-up shot of the comet shown here was also on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day site on July 17, 1998.

We had gone for two nights in a row with almost no sleep, but our perseverance paid off; our photos are a treasured reminder of a beautiful comet!

Revised: April 30, 2005
Copyright © 2000 Joe Orman
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