The Romance of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp







The inner solar system has been treated to two unexpected celestial visitors in the past two years. First comet Hyakutake, like a shy suitor, had a close but brief encounter with Earth in March 1996. Almost exactly a year later, Hale-Bopp courted stargazers like a celestial peacock, lingering at naked-eye visibility for over three months. Both comets turned the heads of the world. But while public interest in Hyakutake could be characterized as mild, interest in Hale-Bopp bordered on the wild.

I had the opportunity to observe Hyakutake with several dozen other dedicated amateur astronomers from Mount Pinos, an 8,800-foot (2,700-meter) peak 70 miles north of Los Angeles. On March 23, 1996, shortly after 8 p.m., Hyakutake rose above the northeastern tree line. Indistinct and diffuse at first glance, the comet soon revealed rich detail and structure to the naked eye. Binoculars captured delicate streamers of plasma trailing behind the bright, star-like inner coma; the extended coma was distinctly aquamarine. The bite of the cold night air (7 degrees Fahrenheit) was reduced to a nibble by the excitement of viewing this interplanetary marvel.

As wonderful as this initial view certainly was, it was a latent image of that to come. By 10:30 p.m. the Moon had set and the comet was 30 degrees above the horizon. The sky was pitch black. The assembled comet-watchers gaped and gasped. The coma of Hyakutake was twice the diameter of the full Moon and the tail cut across a quarter of the sky. Hyakutake displayed itself in its full glory. It utterly dominated the familiar constellations. Orion was now setting in the west, as if even this intrepid warrior had been intimidated by the comet's sword-like tail.

I scanned the comet several times with binoculars and studied its coma in a small telescope. A narrow, sharp jet extended from the nucleus, forming the core of the plasma tail. It was one of the most exciting and inspiring astronomical sights I'd ever seen. But my excitement was tinged with sadness when I realized how few people would enjoy the view of Hyakutake I was privileged to see. How many more would only see the comet from a city or suburb, a fuzzy smudge in the dim glaze of twilight, and wonder what all the fuss was about?

A Moment's Ornament
But few people, if any, were bewildered by the fever created by this year's cometary caller. Hale-Bopp lived up to the highest hopes of astronomers. The Great Comet of 1997 was nearly 700 million miles from the Sun when it was first spotted on July 22, 1995, by Alan Hale in New Mexico and Thomas Bopp in Arizona. Astronomers knew the comet must be large to be visible in amateur telescopes at such a great distance, boding well for a memorable apparition in spring 1997, when the comet would make its closest approach to Earth.

Having had the luxury of observing and photographing Hale-Bopp nearly since its discovery, I can't honestly say what has been my best view. Sharing my telescope with some 70 guests at the Mount Wilson observatory--many of whom had never before looked through a telescope--was one of many joys made possible by this celestial object. Hale-Bopp has become an old friend during its visit to the inner solar system, cherished but perhaps a little taken for granted, and I miss it now that it has faded from northern skies.

Over the past six months, the Los Angeles Times has printed over 70 news articles about the comet. Local and national radio and television news programs have also publicized it and provided viewers with guides to finding it in the sky. Most of the reportage has focused on how and when to see Hale-Bopp, rather than the physical nature of comets or their scientific significance. The stress on eye-catching visuals which dominates the news media, especially television, probably accounts for this emphasis.

Astronomy clubs and planetariums across the globe arranged public information and viewing programs. Numerous web sites devoted to Hale-Bopp sprouted across the Internet. NASA's Near-Live Comet Viewing site has been posting comet pictures — to date, 4,000 of them — taken by amateur and professional photographers from dozens of countries around the world.

Griffith Park observatory, one of the largest public observatories in the world, hosted public Hale-Bopp viewing evenings every clear night (except Mondays) from March 19 through May 18. In addition to the observatory's 12-inch Zeiss refractor, the public had views of the comet through binoculars and telescopes set up on the observatory grounds by members of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Sidewalk Astronomers.

The response was overwhelming. Ed Krupp, director of the observatory, estimates that over 60,000 people visited Griffith to view Hale-Bopp, the greatest number of people ever to visit the observatory to view an astronomical object. Krupp says that the comet watchers were ethnically diverse, well-mannered, respectful, and appreciative of the equipment that the many amateur astronomers provided for their use. It may be that people who are interested in the stars are generally polite and considerate. Or perhaps the wonder of a spectacle such as Hale-Bopp lifts us all up, inspiring us to be more thoughtful, civil human beings.

Sightless Couriers of the Air
Great comets have always spurred a wide range of reactions. In a wonderful book written in the 1920s, The Romance of Comets, Mary Proctor relates the dread and woe that greeted most comets throughout the centuries. In medieval Europe, comets were portents of disease and pestilence, wars and the deaths of kings. In ancient China, comets were not necessarily bad omens, but were considered harbingers of future events. In the Chinese mythos, each constellation was a province in a great empire. The planets were the empire's administrators and the stars were its diplomats. In this celestial kingdom, it was decided what would happen to the terrestrial empire of the Chinese, for better or worse. Comets played the role of imperial messengers, shuttling like cosmic couriers among the constellations.

Sadly, Hale-Bopp seems to have rekindled some of the superstitions common in ages past. In mid-November 1996, a photograph taken by a Houston amateur astronomer appeared on the Internet seeming to show a "Saturn-like object" in the wake of the comet. The object proved to be nothing more than a misidentified star distorted by optical aberrations in the photographer's telescope. But rumors quickly began to circulate that an alien spaceship was flying in tandem with the comet.

The nature and purpose of the alleged spaceship was widely discussed on the Internet and various talk-radio programs, particularly Art Bell's Coast to Coast, which runs weekly on 330 stations nationwide. In late March, in an exclusive suburb of San Diego, 39 members of a quasi-religious group, Heaven's Gate, took their own lives in the belief that their souls (and perhaps even their physical bodies) would rise into space and fly into eternity aboard the alien ship.

Since the Renaissance, scientists have fought against prevailing superstitions to communicate objective findings about the natural world. They have approached nature in a manner not unlike an informed jury considering evidence in a criminal trial — aware of their own personal prejudices and potential for bias, but committed to determining, as best as humanly possible, the facts of the case. Interrogating nature in this fashion sometimes seems callous to outside observers, and heated debates among scientists, necessary though they are, do not make it any easier for the lay public to sort scientific speculation from established fact. New discoveries and theories invariably face some resistance, both from the general public and from political and religious institutions who fear their authority might be threatened.

The Heaven's Gate experience is a clear reminder of the risks of indulging a belief system based purely on personal desire and subjective experience. In an increasingly complicated world, the need to foster critical thinking and rational discussion is greater than ever. This is not, of course, solely the responsibility of scientists. An educational system that rewards children who ask questions, along with enlightened religious and cultural institutions that aren't threatened by honest inquiry, are essential foundations of healthy societies.

Some argue that science robs the universe of its mystery. But in my view the opposite is true. It allows us to revere the world, yet frees us from the superstitions that pit man against man. When science pulls back the curtain, it does not eliminate mystery, but heightens it. Whatever degree of scientific understanding we achieve only increases our appreciation for the complex and inscrutable beauty of the universe. A sense of wonder for the natural world, the skies included, guides us to a greater respect for nature, its delicate balances and sublime wisdom.

Even though modern science dismisses the notion that comets or other celestial objects dictate the course of human affairs, it has discovered an even more intimate and profound connection between humans and the heavens: Comets brought ices and complex organic molecules to the surface of the Earth in the chaotic years of our planet's youth, coating our world with precious water and, perhaps, spreading the chemical seeds of the life that flourishes here today. Great comets like Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp serve to remind us of this deep and astonishing bond.

The following article appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

The drought of comets broke last year, and how.






Figure 4. A typical warp field coil segment. The densified W-Co-Mg core is embedded with a casting of electrically densified verterium cortenide. A complete pair measures 21 m x 43 m and weight nearly 35 kt. A starship such as the Enterprise is outfitted with two complete sets of 19 coils each.