Hale-Bopp: A Comet For the Ages

By Richard Sanderson
Originally published in 1997
Photos by Mike Kozicki

Hale-Bopp after a snowfall - March 20, 1997

Like a beautiful rose dying and withering on the vine, the once spectacular Comet Hale-Bopp has faded into the evening twilight, bringing to a close one of the most exciting and historic celestial performances of the century. At the height of its splendor, Hale-Bopp may have been admired by more people than any other comet in history.

The saga of Comet Hale-Bopp began nearly two years ago, on a clear July night in 1995. A professional astronomer living in New Mexico named Alan Hale, and amateur astronomer Thomas Bopp from the neighboring state of Arizona, were the first to spot the incoming comet. It appeared as nothing more than a faint smudge in their telescopes.

Observations carried out during the weeks that followed the discovery allowed astronomers to calculate the size and shape of Comet Hale-Bopp's orbit, and to predict its future path through the solar system. They were shocked to discover that on the night it was first spotted, the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter and was the most distant comet ever discovered visually. Astronomers estimated that its solid icy core is a gigantic 25 miles in diameter, three times the size of Comet Halley's nucleus, although the tenuous gases of its head and tail would eventually span millions of miles. All indications pointed to a cosmic event of historic magnitude, and astronomers knew that the comet's orbit would give Northern Hemisphere viewers the best seats in the house during the peak of the celestial performance.

While the world waited for Comet Hale-Bopp to brighten, an almost miraculous event took place. Another comet was discovered by Japanese comet-hunter Yuji Hyakutake which would arrive first, passing very close to the Earth. During the spring of 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly stole the limelight from Hale-Bopp as it became a breathtaking object in the nighttime sky, with a tail spanning half the heavens as seen from dark-sky locations. It was one of the best comets of the past 500 years.

Hyakutake was a small comet that came very close to our world, so its spectacular appearance was short-lived. Throughout the fall and early winter of 1996, with Comet Hyakutake long since faded from view, Comet Hale-Bopp continued to brighten.

Bright comets have long been surrounded by myths and superstitions, and Hale-Bopp was no exception. In November of 1996, an amateur photograph of the comet included a background object resembling Saturn, which some people identified as a huge alien spaceship following the comet inward from the depths of space. Astronomers quickly identified the so-called "Saturn-Like Object" as a distorted background star, but the bizarre UFO story played right into the hands of a California cult known as Heaven's Gate. The cult members were obsessed with the idea that they were destined to be picked up by the alien craft. Believing that a spaceship really was following the comet, 39 cult members committed suicide in order to expedite their celestial journey.

A closeup view of Hale-Bopp on April 8, 1997

When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the early morning sky in February 1997, there was no longer any doubt that this would be one of the best comets ever seen. It was easily visible to the naked eye at this time, displaying a bright, fuzzy tail. Things really got exciting in March and April when Comet Hale-Bopp moved into the evening sky, appearing as a beautiful naked-eye object just after sunset. The comet was so bright, even city-dwellers got a good view despite smog and haze. From the dark skies of the countryside, the comet was spectacular, with a bright head and a fuzzy, curving dust tail.

A series of comet-viewing programs at local schools conducted by the Springfield Stars Club attracted enormous crowds. At the Powder Mill School in Southwick, an estimated one thousand people gazed at the comet through telescopes provided by Stars Club members. The monthly "Stars Over Springfield" viewing sessions at the Springfield Science Museum were attended by standing-room-only crowds of people eager to learn about the comet.

"The appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp was a wonderful event that got people outside looking up at the nighttime sky," said Springfield Stars Club president and Southwick resident Ed Faits. "The comet was perfectly placed for viewers, who only had to walk out of their houses an hour after sunset and find the northwest. The comet was unmistakable."

"Comets impacting the Earth billions of years ago probably gave us most of our water and maybe even organic compounds that were the seeds of life," said Faits. "Hale-Bopp gave amateur astronomers an opportunity to do a little public education and present information like this to thousands of people."

"Hale-Bopp was the most witnessed comet in history," noted Ray Burk of Wilbraham, a member of the Stars Club's Board of Directors. "To me, the most exciting aspect was the reaction of the public to a view through the large scopes, and then the realization that they could see more through binoculars, or with the naked eye. I got a lot of comments like 'Cool' and 'Awesome' from people of all ages." he said.

For Sarah Rae, an amateur astronomer who lives in East Longmeadow, Comet Hale-Bopp provided an excellent opportunity to capture a bright comet on film. Using a variety of telephoto lenses and high-speed film, she photographed the comet on several different evenings.

Stars Club member Mike Kozicki, also an astro-photographer, captured a stunning sequence of images showing the comet hovering over the nighttime skyline of Springfield.

Hale-Bopp over the Springfield skyline on the morning of March 28, 1997

Hale-Bopp was the star attraction of many Internet web sites, including one created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California which was bombarded by over a million hits a day when the comet was at its brightest.

Comet Hale-Bopp was certainly one of the best in recent history, but how does it compare to other great comets from previous centuries? Mark Kidger of the Teide Observatory in Tenerife, Spain, notes on his web page that Hale-Bopp has easily shattered the record for longest naked-eye visibility. The previous record-holder in this category was the Great Comet of 1811, which was visible to the unaided eye for about nine months. Hale-Bopp has already been a naked-eye object for about twelve months, and may ultimately double the mark set back in 1811!

Although Northern Hemisphere observers have bid farewell to Comet Hale-Bopp, it will continue to be visible from the southern latitudes as a naked-eye object, and later only in binoculars. It is expected to fade from binocular view during 1998.

As the visit of Comet Hale-Bopp draws to a close, we have an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what our world will be like when the comet returns again in 2,500 years. Will our species have permanently expanded beyond the Earth, with people living in colonies on the moon, on Mars, and perhaps on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Will humans have traveled to the stars and discovered life on distant worlds? Or will we be confined to an Earth so polluted that the comet will go unnoticed the next time around?

At its height, the Great Comet of 1997 attracted the attention of people all over the world. It was a source of excitement, a source of inspiration. Now Comet Hale-Bopp is passing from the night skies into the history books as it returns to the frozen depths of space, where it will silently drift for two and a half millennia before returning to an Earth more different than we can ever imagine.

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