Another Comet Cometh: And this “new” one might be bigger than Halley’s (Diversion, February 1997)


Just past midnight on a starry summer night a year and a half ago, from his backyard in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, Alan Hale spotted the smudge of his dreams. The founder of the Southwest Institute for Space Research, Hale had been sightseeing in the constellation Sagittarius, killing time until another galaxy rose above the horizon. Then he noticed a dim, fuzzy object near the Messier 70 star cluster.


"I had spent 20 years looking for a comet, dragging myself out of bed, losing a lot of sleep and never finding anything," recalls Hale, who had finally given up the search.  "But I didn't see what else it could be."


Just to be sure, however, he flipped his telescope eyepiece to a higher magnification and checked his star charts to verify that he was looking at the right cluster. Then he made a quick sketch of the position of the smudge relative to the stars. He ran inside and pored through every catalog of galaxies he had in his home office for a sign of a smear in M70. While he was at it, he sent an e-mail to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT), the world's comet clearinghouse at Harvard University, to file a claim. Finally, he peered through the telescope again. The smudge had moved. "And that's when I woke up my wife and asked if she was interested in looking at Comet Hale."  (Her reply was unprintable.)


By the following morning, Hale had received good news and bad news. The good news was that his observations were correct. The bad news was that he wasn't alone. Thomas Bopp, an amateur astronomer and a shift supervisor in the parts department of a construction materials company in Phoenix, Arizona, had been at a star party in the desert 90 miles outside of town, when he, too, stumbled across the suspicious smudge. Thus, the name on the comet's official birth certificate became: Comet C/1995 O1 (Hale-Bopp).


A quick explanation of cometary nomenclature:  Under a system recently codified by the International Astronomical Union, "C/1995 O1" means that this was the first comet found in the second half-month of July (each half-month is given a letter, with "I" being omitted and "Z" not needed). The C designates comets with a solar-orbiting period of more than 200 years. (Halley's Comet, with its short 76-year cycle, is 1P/Halley.)  Lastly, although proponents of alphabetical order might assume the comet would be called "Bopp-Hale," according to CBAT's calculations, Hale notified it about 10 minutes ahead of Bopp, so he got pride of place.



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