Constant Comet: Hale-Bopp

Hale-Bopp is neither the latest dance craze, nor a new hot nightspot, but rather a newcomer of a decidedly more stellar nature. If all proceeds as projected, planet Earth could be in for a spectacle comparable to the Great Comet of 1811, with a vast tail visible for weeks. Hale-Bopp, already the most luminous object in the pre-dawn sky, will blaze brighter as it nears the Earth on March 22, then loops around the sun in early April. To catch the show now you'll need to drag yourself out of bed before daybreak. But after March 24 it can be viewed to the Northeast after twilight, with a partial lunar eclipse on March 23 making a spectacular double billing.The comet won't sweep back through the neighborhood for another 2400 years, but what Hale-Bopp lacks in frequency of performance should be compensated for in brilliance. When first sighted in July 1995 it was well beyond the orbit of Jupiter; an observation distance virtually unheard of. Most comets range in size from hundreds of meters to several kilometers in diameter, but inference from Hubbell Satellite photos puts Hale-Bopp's diameter at approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles); about three times that of the famous Halley's."Hale-Bopp's coma, the surrounding dust cloud, is far larger than the sun. With what we've seen already it could be among the brightest comets ever," said astronomer Alan Hale, the Hale in Hale-Bopp, at a lecture at San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium in February. "But comets are unpredictable. They're like cats: they both have tails, and they do whatever they want."These wayward chunks of frozen gases, water, and dust -- described by scientist as "dirty snowballs" -- left over from the formation of the solar system, spend most of their orbit in outer space. As they approach the sun comets get brighter as solar winds blow the vaporized ice and dust to create the tail. About a dozen new comets are detected each year, though usually appearing to the naked eye as tiny, fuzzy spheres of light, such as comet Hyakutake last year, with great ones discovered every 10 or 20 years. "I guess if you're going to find a comet," said Hale, "it might as well be a big one."Enthralled with the night sky ever since childhood, as an adult Hale spent 15 years hoping to discover an elusive comet and have one named after him -- a tradition that goes back several centuries. Then on a fortuitous, clear night in July 1995, he lucked out. From his home in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, he had been following two known comets and recording his observations. With an hour to kill before the second comet would rise behind the house, he serendipitously aimed his telescope toward galaxy M70 in the constellation Sagittarius. Noticing that a fuzzy object, which did not appear in star atlases, had moved during that hour he notified the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the world's comet clearing house in Cambridge, Massachusetts."Then I took my life into my hands, walked into the bedroom, looked at my sleeping wife and asked if she wanted to get up and see comet Hale," he recalls with a laugh. "And I'm still alive to tell the story." But, as fate would have it, that same night in Arizona, a man named Thomas Bopp also happened to be gazing at galaxy M70 -- hence the hyphenated name of Hale-Bopp. Thirty- nine year-old Hale doesn't mind sharing the renown with Mr. Bopp, but what does rankle him is the "anti-science" that surrounds his comet, and comets in general. Since time immemorial these celestial anomalies have gotten a bum rap. Regarded with awe and superstition, dazzling stars that suddenly appeared out of nowhere were easy to construe as portents of doom and disaster auguring wars, earthquakes, plagues, and the imminent death of emperors and kings.In 1066, while King Harold of England feared that the comet sweeping overhead (it was Halley's) heralded the demise of his kingdom, William the Conqueror across the English Channel took it as an omen of good fortune and successfully invaded Britain; a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Great Comet in 1811 was blamed for Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, as responsible for America's largest earthquake on the New Madrid fault in Missouri, and was credited for a choice Portuguese vintage; the comet wine sold at exorbitant prices for decades afterwards.Apparently we haven't evolved far from our predecessors: many already link Hale-Bopp's advent with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's passing and to the devastating earthquake in Iran; and for months cyberspace has buzzed with wild stories that Hale-Bopp changes course, emits huge jets of material at periodic intervals, that an object four times the size of earth is following Hale-Bopp, and that NASA stopped releasing photos of Hale-Bopp because it's really a UFO headed our way!The source of this peculiar fiction was a Houston man who had taken photos of Hale-Bopp last year, speculating that a saturn-like image alongside the comet was, in fact, a spaceship. With a little help from a syndicated radio talk show and the internet, rumors ran rampant."I got a call the next day from a Cincinnati radio station asking me what I thought of this mysterious spaceship following my comet," Hale said. Responding on the Hale-Bopp internet site (http://www.halebopp.com/tocmap.htm ) that the "spaceship" was just a bright star, he was deluged with vicious messages. "I was called lots of names, the least obscene being 'a traitor to the Earth.' Some said the state is hiding information, and government scientists are a bunch of liars." he said. "By the way, the government hasn't paid me one cent for my involvement in this conspiracy. But it has gotten me a lot of publicity."As much as many Earthlings might welcome interstellar intervention to avoid the tax deadline, having to find a new job, or face an impending bear stock market, never the less Hale-Bopp, possibly the largest comet to grace the heavens in millenniums, should provide some delightful diversions of its own.

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