BEIJING--More than 5000 people from around the world are trekking to northern China for a unique astronomical spectacle this Sunday morning, 9 March: comet Hale-Bopp viewed against a total solar eclipse.
Hale-Bopp, discovered in July 1995, is thought to swing by Earth once every 3000 years. The comet is now lighting up night skies and will make its closest approach to Earth on 23 March, when it's some 200 million kilometers away. In China, as elsewhere, Hale-Bopp has been thrilling amateurs and professionals alike. "We observed the comet expanding from a vague spot to a bright star through our ordinary telescopes," says Zhang Jingbo, president of the Astronomy Lovers Society in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, which abuts the China-Russia border.
Zhang is one of 110 Chinese and foreign astronomers expected to be on hand to witness the rare event at Mohe, in Heilongjiang Province, when the moon completely blocks the sun for more than 2 minutes. The path of the moon's shadow will begin in Kazakhstan just past midnight, universal time, and will cut across Mongolia, eastern Siberia, and China. Although watching Hale-Bopp during the event is unlikely to generate novel scientific data--the comet is just as easily observed at night--the excellent view is nonetheless generating plenty of excitement. This will be the first time since 1963 that a comet has been viewed during an eclipse, and only the fifth time in the last century. China Central Television, the country's largest TV network, will broadcast the solar eclipse live.