Dedicated comet hunters obviously see dozens, if not hundreds of comets, but if you are reluctant to spend hours in the cold night air and only condescend to look at those comets that are well advertised in advance, you can't expect to notch up a large score. However, these are the comets which most fair-weather astronomers and comet tourists probably remember.
West's Comet, 1976
West, 1976 March 6. 10x50 binoculars.
At 5 a.m. on the chilly morning of 6 March 1976, I crept down the stairs, binoculars in hand, in an effort to see the much-advertised West's Comet. I was not optimistic. Previous attempts at comet observations had been failures. An all-night vigil in 1965 had failed to produce a sighting of Ikeya-Seki's Comet, and despite numerous early risings in 1973, I had seen nothing of the notorious Kohoutek's Comet. Outside, conditions did not look promising. The sky was very hazy. I didn't expect to see anything. A quick look round, a scan with the binoculars, then back to bed. Then, something caught my eye about four degrees above the horizon to the northeast. A dim, fuzzy ball of light. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. And it was visible to the naked eye! A look through the binoculars, and there it was - a classic comet, and my very first. The tail rose vertically, about four degrees long, with a bright star to the upper left. A real comet, with a real tail. I knew now how inadequate every comet picture I had seen was.
Iras-Iraki-Alcock Comet, 1983
Iras-Araki-Alcock, 1983 May 8. 10x50 binoculars.
A remarkable comet that passed 3 million miles from the Earth on 11 May, and moved about 8 degrees in 24 hours. It was my first comet since West's, and the swiftness with which the diffuse globe of light and its bright nucleus was captured in binoculars was very heartening.
Halley's Comet, 1985
Halley, 1986 January 14. 10x50 binoculars.
My next comet was Halley's; generally considered to have been a disappointment, especially, as far as I could see, it never became visible to the naked eye. However, it was as big a thrill as West's to first see it in binoculars on November 10, 1985, as a dim circular fuzz of light in Taurus. On 15 December 1985, I suspected it had a tail, and there was no doubt on 29 December. On 14 January 1986, the tail was half a degree long, and that was about as exciting as Halley was going to get. I wasn't complaining, however. I had observed it on 17 occasions, which was more than any comet till Hale-Bopp………………………Halley Gallery
Bradfield's Comet, 1987
Bradfield, 1987 November 14. 10x50 binoculars.
A telescopic comet which I got several looks at. It had a short tail, which on 14 November 1987, appeared as a dim fan-shaped curve.
Austin's Comet, 1990
Austin, 1990 May 5. 70 mm. refractor.
A comet which I hoped would be visible to the naked eye but turned out to be barely visible in binoculars. Several fruitless vigils on dark playing fields brought back memories of pre-West days, but I did eventually manage to see it.
Hyakutake's Comet, 1996
Hyakutake, 1996 March 27. 70 mm. refractor.
While telescopic comets are always interesting, I was getting impatient for a comet visible to the naked eye. Hyakutake was that. As soon as I stepped out of doors on 27 March, it was easily visible as a fuzzy 'star' about two degrees west of Polaris. In a small telescope it was very beautiful, a luminous pearly fog of coma surrounding a bright stellar nucleus.
Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997
Hale-Bopp, 1997 March 15. 10x50 binoculars.
After the failure of Halley's Comet to become visible to the naked eye, I was having my doubts about old descriptions of comets, especially the ones whose tails supposedly filled the sky. Hale-Bopp changed all that. Although it never came closer than 123 million miles to the Earth, it was still undoubtedly dramatic. The mind boggled at something so bright and yet so far away. What would it have looked like had it been a million miles distant? I first saw Hale-Bopp on the evening of 11 March, when it was faintly visible to the naked eye. The next evening it was at least magnitude 2, with a very faint tail. During March and April, it was impossible not to notice Hale-Bopp in the evening sky, nor to mistake what it was. On 7 April, the nucleus was as bright as a first-magnitude star, but larger and fuzzier, with a fan-shaped tail two or three degrees long curving up to the right. At 9 p.m. on the evening of 11 April, the sky was a deep blue with a glimmer of twilight and a crescent Moon; and the comet was among the stars, just as in all the old pictures. The tail rose vertically like a plume from the bright hazy nucleus. I saw Hale-Bopp on 29 nights, (lastly on 4 May) easily beating Halley's record.…………..Hale-Bopp Diary…………..Hale-Bopp Gallery