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I remember seeing Comet Hyakutake "moving" against the stars in the background through light polluted skies in LA. It was a memorable experience. Was one of the stars Polaris?

LA Times April 14, 2002, OBITUARIES

Yuji Hyakutake, 51; Amateur Discovered Giant Comet

Hyakutake, for whom the International Astronomical Union named the bright long-tailed object Comet C/1996 B2 Hyakutake, has died. He was 51. The photographer and photoengraver died Wednesday in Kokubu near Kagoshima, Japan, of a heart attack brought on by a ruptured artery.

"It's not as though I own the thing, but it is flattering to have such a big comet bear my name," the modest Hyakutake said after his discovery rocketed him to international celebrity.

The future discoverer became enchanted by astronomy in 1965, when he saw the Ideya-Seki Comet as a teenager. But he graduated from an industrial college and worked as a photoengraver for newspapers and as a freelance photographer.

Hyakutake became an amateur comet-hunter in 1989 but never seemed to share the luck of other amateurs who discover many of the dozens of comets seen each year. The trick is to spot a new comet before competitors claim it as their own, but he never seemed to find anything.

To escape big-city lights, which impede star-gazing, Hyakutake moved to a mountainside in rural Kagoshima. Four nights a month, he lugged his huge binoculars with front lenses the size of saucers 30 minutes higher up his mountain, and from 2 to 5 a.m. searched for comets.

On Dec. 26, 1995, he struck space dirt--his first comet, a small, dim one he dubbed "Christmas Comet."

A month later, he was back at his post to photograph his little prize. Clouds obscured its location, however, so he looked elsewhere, and there he found the comet that would put him in the astronomy books.

But even then, he almost missed out on the name and the fame.

"I discovered Comet Hyakutake at 4:50 in the morning, and usually a person can report a comet after 8 a.m.," he said. "But I decided to take some photos of the comet, using my camera with telephoto lens, and got them developed. It wasn't until 11 a.m. that I called the National Astronomy Observatory in Tokyo to report my new comet."

Two other amateur Japanese astronomers had also seen the comet, and Hyakutake barely reported it ahead of them.

The Hyakutake Comet attracted major notice from professional astronomers and the public alike because of its enormous size, the brilliance that made it resemble a star and its 62,000-mile-long tail. Observable for two months, the comet even became visible to the naked eye at its closest point to Earth--a mere 9.5 million miles--which is an extremely rare phenomenon.


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