Comet Hyakutake, formally designated C/1996 B2) is a comet, discovered on 31 January 1996, that passed very close to Earth in March of that year. It was dubbed The Great Comet of 1996; its passage near the Earth was one of the closest cometary approaches of the previous 200 years. Hyakutake appeared very bright in the night sky and was widely seen around the world. The comet temporarily upstaged the much anticipated Comet Hale–Bopp, which was approaching the inner Solar System at the time.

Scientific observations of the comet led to several discoveries. Most surprising to cometary scientists was the first discovery of X-ray emission from a comet, believed to have been caused by ionised solar wind particles interacting with neutral atoms in the coma of the comet. The Ulysses spacecraft unexpectedly crossed the comet's tail at a distance of more than 500 million kilometres (3.3 AU or 3108 mi) from the nucleus, showing that Hyakutake had the longest tail known for a comet. Hyakutake is a long-period comet. Before its most recent passage through the Solar System, its orbital period was about 17,000 years, but the gravitational perturbation of the giant planets has increased this period to 70,000 years
The comet was discovered on 30 January 1996, by Yuji Hyakutake, an amateur astronomer from southern Japan.He had been searching for comets for years and had moved to Kagoshima Prefecture partly for the dark skies in nearby rural areas. He was using a powerful set of binoculars with 150 mm (6 in) objective lenses to scan the skies on the night of the discovery.

This comet was actually the second Comet Hyakutake; Hyakutake had discovered comet C/1995 Y1 several weeks earlier. While re-observing his first comet (which never became visible to the naked eye) and the surrounding patch of sky, Hyakutake was surprised to find another comet in almost the same position as the first had been. Hardly believing a second discovery so soon after the first, Hyakutake reported his observation to the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan the following morning. Later that day, the discovery was confirmed by independent observations.

At the time of its discovery, the comet was shining at magnitude 11.0 and had a coma approximately 2.5 arcminutes across. It was approximately 2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. Later, a precovery image of the comet was found on a photograph taken on January 1, when the comet was about 2.4 AU from the Sun and had a magnitude of 13.3

When the first calculations of the comet's orbit were made, scientists realized that it was going to pass just 0.1 AU from Earth on 25 March. Only four comets in the previous century had passed closer. Comet Hale–Bopp was already being discussed as a possible "great comet"; the astronomical community eventually realised that Hyakutake might also become spectacular because of its close approach.

Moreover, Comet Hyakutake's orbit meant that it had last been to the inner Solar System approximately 17,000 years earlier. Because it had probably passed close to the Sun several times before, the approach in 1996 would not be a maiden arrival from the Oort cloud, a place where comets with orbital periods of millions of years come from. Comets entering the inner Solar System for the first time may brighten rapidly before fading as they near the Sun, because a layer of highly volatile material evaporates. This was the case with Comet Kohoutek in 1973; it was initially touted as potentially spectacular, but only appeared moderately bright. Older comets show a more consistent brightening pattern. Thus, all indications suggested Comet Hyakutake would be bright.

Besides approaching close to Earth, the comet would also be visible throughout the night to northern hemisphere observers at its closest approach because of its path, passing very close to the pole star. This would be an unusual occurrence, because most comets are close to the Sun in the sky when the comets are at their brightest, leading to the comets appearing in a sky not completely dark.

Hyakutake became visible to the naked eye in early March 1996. By mid-March, the comet was still fairly unremarkable, shining at 4th magnitude with a tail about 5 degreeslong. As it neared its closest approach to Earth, it rapidly became brighter, and its tail grew in length. By March 24, the comet was one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and its tail stretched 35 degrees. The comet had a notably bluish-green colour.

The closest approach occurred on 25 March. Hyakutake was moving so rapidly across the night sky that its movement could be detected against the stars in just a few minutes; it covered the diameter of a full moon (half a degree) every 30 minutes. Observers estimated its magnitude as around 0, and tail lengths of up to 80 degrees were reported. Its coma, now close to the zenith for observers at mid-northern latitudes, appeared approximately 1.5 to 2 degrees across, roughly four times the diameter of the full moon. Even to the naked eye, the comet's head appeared distinctly green, due to strong emissions from diatomic carbon (C2).

Because Hyakutake was at its brightest for only a few days, it did not have time to permeate the public imagination in the way that Comet Hale–Bopp did the following year. Many European observers in particular did not see the comet at its peak because of unfavourable weather conditions

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