Cambridge, MA — The brightest comet since 1997’s Hale-Bopp is
currently gracing the western skies of North America. Comet
Ikeya-Zhang (pronounced “ee-KAY-uh JONG”) was discovered on February
1st by two amateur astronomers in Japan and China, respectively.
Calculations of the comet’s orbit by Brian Marsden of the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics show that it was last
seen in 1661. This makes Ikeya-Zhang the first long-period comet (a
comet with a period longer than 200 years) to be identified on its
return to the inner solar system.

No telescope is necessary to look at this beautiful visitor as it
swings around the Sun and heads back to deep space. The comet has
brightened to naked-eye visibility, but is easiest to see through
binoculars. A casual glance will show the bright, starlike nucleus
surrounded by a fuzzy cloud of dust and gas called the coma. The
comet’s tail streaks away from the Sun, pointing nearly straight up
from the horizon.

To find Comet Ikeya-Zhang, look in the western sky shortly after
sunset. A red point of light about 18 degrees up in the sky is the
planet Mars. (An outspread hand at arm’s length covers about 15
degrees, so Mars is a bit higher than one hand-span.) To the right of
Mars are two bright stars in a nearly vertical line. The comet is at
the same height as Mars, to the right of the two bright stars about
as far again as the distance from Mars to the stars.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College
Observatory. CfA scientists organized into seven research divisions
study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

Note to editors: An image of Comet Ikeya-Zhang on the evening of
Thursday, March 22, 2002, taken by the MicroObservatory telescope in
Cambridge, is available online at The
MicroObservatory project, created by the Science Education group at
the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, allows students and
teachers across the nation to use telescopes over the Internet to
take pictures of objects in the night sky.

For more information, contact:

David Aguilar, Director of Public Affairs

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Phone: 617-495-7462 Fax: 617-495-7468