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Obituaries

Yuji Hyakutake, 51; Amateur Discovered Giant Comet

April 14, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It had not been seen in 10,000 years and isn't expected again for 14,000 more.

But Jan. 30, 1996, the ball of ice and dirt the size of Chicago revealed itself to an amateur astronomer named Yuji Hyakutake and soon to the rest of the world.

Hyakutake, for whom the International Astronomical Union named the bright long-tailed object Comet C/1996 B2 Hyakutake, has died. He was 51.

The photographer and photoengraver died Wednesday in Kokubu near Kagoshima, Japan, of a heart attack brought on by a ruptured artery.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Hyakutake obituary--The obituary of amateur astronomer Yuji Hyakutake in the California section on April 14 incorrectly stated the name of the comet that inspired him to begin star-gazing. It was actually the Ikeya-Seki Comet, discovered in 1965.

"It's not as though I own the thing, but it is flattering to have such a big comet bear my name," the modest Hyakutake said after his discovery rocketed him to international celebrity.

The future discoverer became enchanted by astronomy in 1965, when he saw the Ideya-Seki Comet as a teenager. But he graduated from an industrial college and worked as a photoengraver for newspapers and as a freelance photographer.

Hyakutake became an amateur comet-hunter in 1989 but never seemed to share the luck of other amateurs who discover many of the dozens of comets seen each year. The trick is to spot a new comet before competitors claim it as their own, but he never seemed to find anything.

He got so frustrated, he said six years ago during a visit to the Midwest to observe his comet through powerful telescopes at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, that he opted for another hobby, mountain-climbing.

"I have a passion for walking through the sky," he said through an interpreter at a 1996 news conference in Chicago's Adler Planetarium. "Then, my passion became walking through the mountains. Now, I walk through the mountains and the sky."

To escape big-city lights, which impede star-gazing, Hyakutake moved to a mountainside in rural Kagoshima. Four nights a month, he lugged his huge binoculars with front lenses the size of saucers 30 minutes higher up his mountain, and from 2 to 5 a.m. searched for comets.

On Dec. 26, 1995, he struck space dirt--his first comet, a small, dim one he dubbed "Christmas Comet."

A month later, he was back at his post to photograph his little prize. Clouds obscured its location, however, so he looked elsewhere, and there he found the comet that would put him in the astronomy books.

But even then, he almost missed out on the name and the fame.

"I discovered Comet Hyakutake at 4:50 in the morning, and usually a person can report a comet after 8 a.m.," he said. "But I decided to take some photos of the comet, using my camera with telephoto lens, and got them developed. It wasn't until 11 a.m. that I called the National Astronomy Observatory in Tokyo to report my new comet."

Two other amateur Japanese astronomers had also seen the comet, and Hyakutake barely reported it ahead of them.

The Hyakutake Comet attracted major notice from professional astronomers and the public alike because of its enormous size, the brilliance that made it resemble a star and its 62,000-mile-long tail. Observable for two months, the comet even became visible to the naked eye at its closest point to Earth--a mere 9.5 million miles--which is an extremely rare phenomenon.

Hyakutake's achievement earned him a job as head of a municipal astronomical observatory in Aira near his home. And he kept on searching the skies, hunting more comets, until his death.

He is survived by his wife, Shoko, and two sons.

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