HALE-BOPP, PLUS TEN
(originally run: July 22, 2005)
It was ten years ago this weekend when this author inadvertently managed to find his way into the history books. Just after midnight on the spectacularly clear Sunday morning of July 23, 1995, he was taking a brief look at a star cluster in Sagittarius known as M70 when he noticed a dimmer, fuzzy object nearby. A check of star atlases and catalogues revealed no known object in that location, and within about 45 minutes it was clear that the object was moving slowly against the background stars, confirming its nature as a comet. Meanwhile, at almost exactly the same time in the neighboring state of Arizona, an amateur astronomer, Thomas Bopp, noticed the same object, performed the same checks, and arrived at the same conclusion.
Calculations soon indicated that the newly-discovered Comet Hale-Bopp was located well beyond the orbit of Jupiter; for a comet at such a distance to be readily visible in relatively small telescopes indicates that it must be unusually bright. These same calculations also showed, moreover, that the comet was destined to come much closer to the sun and the Earth. When the comet was nearest the sun, which would take place during the spring of 1997, it would be located within the Earth's orbit, and if its brightness at discovery was any indication, the chances were high that Comet Hale-Bopp would become a bright naked-eye object, quite possibly even a ≥Great Comet.≤
That is almost precisely what happened. The comet became visible to the unaided eye as early as mid-1996, and brightened steadily throughout the remainder of that year. When at its brightest in March and April of 1997 it was a spectacular object easily visible to anyone who looked up into the sky; initially it could be seen in the northeast before dawn, but by the latter part of March had become placed in the northwestern sky after dusk, conveniently visible during ≥prime time.≤ The comet exhibited two prominent tails: a curved, whitish tail made up of dust grains and shining by reflected sunlight, and a straight, blue tail made up of electrically charged gas.
In part because of the long lead time provided by its early discovery, Hale-Bopp became the most studied comet in history. A wide variety of scientific observations were conducted of it from both the Earth and from space, many of these focusing on studies related to the origins of the solar system and of life. In addition, the comet was a very popular cultural icon, a fact which helped make its discoverers' lives rather ≥interesting≤ during that period of time. It's probably a fair statement that more people viewed Comet Hale-Bopp than have viewed any other comet since the beginning of the human race.
As exciting as that time was, the laws of physics were eventually to bring it to an end. As the comet pulled away from the sun and the Earth it began fading, and it also began moving out of view from the northern hemisphere. It did make an encore appearance in our skies in the fall of 1997 ≠ significantly dimmer than it had been earlier in the year ≠ but by the end of the year had permanently dropped below our southern horizon.
Hale-Bopp has, meanwhile, remained accessible to sky-watchers located in the southern hemisphere, and this author had his last view of it from Australia in late May 1998. Even now, ten years after its discovery, it remains detectable with large telescopes located in the southern hemisphere, even though it is presently located somewhat beyond the orbit of the planet Uranus. In images taken earlier this year with a large telescope in Chile, the comet still exhibits a rather distinct tail. It should remain detectable for several more years, perhaps even another one to two decades or more.
But for all intents and purposes, Hale-Bopp is gone, and its discoverers' lives have returned, more or less, to some semblance of normality ≠ whatever ≥normal≤ might mean in this day and age. During the intervening years this author, for example, has seen his father pass away and his older son graduate from high school. He has also been able to initiate some research programs that focus on the asteroids and comets that pass near Earth, and in an effort to utilize his good fortune to accomplish some positive good for the people of our planet, has led delegations of Americans on scientific goodwill visits to Iran. The Earthrise Project that he is presently developing was directly inspired by those endeavors.
Life for the rest of our planet's inhabitants goes on as well, and the intervening years have certainly seen their share of events taking place. While some developments have, certainly, been positive and beneficial to us, other events have been nothing less than tragic, and have contributed towards making this early 21st Century world far less peaceful than what many of us have hoped for. This author's efforts, such as they are, have been an attempt to counter this trend and to focus on the positive things that we are capable of; time will tell if these efforts are ultimately successful.
Comet Hale-Bopp will not return for some 2400 years, long beyond the bounds of any reasonable forecast we might make as to what the world will be like at that time. But regardless of what world might greet it when it comes our way again, let us remember that a few years ago the people of our time were able, if only for a little while, to put aside their differences and gaze in awe at this wanderer from the distant reaches of space and time.
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