On a crisp night early this month, Astronomers Stephen Edberg and Charles Morris, both 33, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., drove up a rocky slope on Mount Waterman, 25 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Scanning the moonless heavens with his binoculars, Morris sighted a faint light source. Then he located the same diffuse blob with his naked eyes. Meanwhile, Edberg sketched the position of the dim light and compared his drawing with the magnified view of the object provided by his binoculars. Sure enough, there it was. The two men had made the first unaided sighting of Halley's comet since the celebrated phenomenon's previous visit, 76 years ago. Joked Morris: "We jumped around and gave a few yells into the night air for the coyotes to hear."
Reports of the event stirred amateur stargazers from coast to coast, inspiring them to stare expectantly last week through shiny new binoculars and small telescopes at a region near the Pleiades, a tight star cluster in the eastern sky. Like Morris and Edberg, all hoped to catch a glimpse of the itinerant mass of frozen water, rock and gas whose periodic reappearance was first predicted by English Astronomer Edmond Halley in 1705.
Although the returning comet was spotted back in 1982 by the mammoth 200-in. Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory, astronomers did not think they would be able to make naked-eye sightings until late December. But Halley's is much brighter than it was expected to be, a phenomenon that may be only temporary. Scientists say that the comet's current luminosity does not necessarily portend, during the coming months, a more brilliant display than they had anticipated.
Indeed, unaided viewing from most places in the U.S. may be difficult or even impossible, at least until mid-December. Halley's, now some 65 million miles from earth, can be seen, however, with a little help from a air pair of good binoculars (recommended power: 7 x 50), assuming the observer finds a location free of city light, air pollution and overcast skies. Viewing will become increasingly difficult as the moon waxes (next full moon: Nov. 27), then will become better again early in December. But the comet, now traveling toward the sun at 70,000 m.p.h., will not show a noticeable tail until late in the month. Its appendage, consisting of dust and charged particles, could ultimately stretch some 70 million miles beyond the comet's nucleus. To witness the extended tail and see Halley's at its most spectacular, watchers will have to wait until next March and April, after the comet has swung around the sun and is making its closest approach to the earth. There is just one catch: the best views of Halley's during its spring approach will be in the Southern Hemisphere. --By Jamie Murphy. Reported by Jon D. Hull/Los Angeles and Thomas McCarroll/New York