Publication: The Times
Comet seen in all its glory
Bad weather has stopped amateur astronomers in Britain and northern Europe from observing one of the finest comets of the century. But many are following Comet Hyakutake without a cloud in sight, thanks to the Internet.
Web sites set up by observatories and enthusiasts are attracting millions of calls as they chart the progress of the comet. Within hours of the discovery of the comet from Japan by Yuji Hyakutake on January 30, its presence had been communicated electronically around the world.
Within days, there were web pages reporting on Hyakutake's passage. The best are updated as photographs and reports flood in from all over the world and from space.
Spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope last week showed jets of gas spewing from the heart of Hyakutake. Hours after they were taken, images were on the web, filed alongside observatory shots and the efforts of amateurs with 35mm cameras.
One busy site is Nasa's Night Of The Comet project at http://www.comet.arc.nasa. As the comet made its closest approach to Earth on March 25, the site had more than 500 accesses (or hits) a minute.
One of the finest sites for Hyakutake was set up by Ron Baalke, who works at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, but who created his pages as a voluntary activity. Last week he had collected more than 500 images of the comet and was getting 350,000 hits a day on his home page at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/hyakutake.
Comet expert Charles Morris has long had a site for enthusiasts at http://encke.jpl.nasa.gov. It was never so busy as when he set up a page for Hyakutake. "I have spent nights working on the page and then have gone observing," he says.
Users with modems but no web access can find images on commercial services such as CompuServe and CIX, or on Starbase One, the London-based astronomy and space bulletin board.