We sat on a mountain top high above the city of Asheville, N.C. as the sun began to set. Conversation could be heard from other cars parked in the same pull-off as the sky filled with a soft orange glow. The first few evening stars began to appear, and the hum of steady conversation turned into occasional murmurs as the sky continued to darken and we all drifted off into our own private rendezvous with our favorite constellations. We all had gathered there for the same reason, to catch a glimpse of the comet Hale-Bopp. I sat there filled with anticipation. What would this comet look like? How bright would it be? Would the tail be as huge as described in various articles I had read? What could I expect from a comet that was millions of miles away from the earth? Suddenly someone exclaimed "There it is!", and my attention was drawn to a fuzzy glow in the north western sky.
My thoughts fluctuated back and forth between disappointment and wonder. I was first struck by how small it appeared, but then thought about the fact that this comet was 122+ million miles away from the earth and I was able to see it without the aid of a telescope or binoculars. I then thought, "What's the big deal about this fuzzy star with a relatively small tail"? but had to admit that it was one of the better comets I had seen in my lifetime. Finally I started thinking about the fact that it had been over 4,200 years since this comet was last seen any being on our planet and that was what finally made me say 'Wow'! 4,200 years ago, and I felt a connection to those distant ancestors that might have sat on a hilltop thousands of years ago and watched the same comet I was viewing now. Suddenly the comet took on a whole new feeling. What was life like on planet earth then? What did people of that time think of this comet? Were they sharing the event with friends, tending sheep, on a journey? Was it brighter then? Did they give the comet a name? I wondered what people of the future would be seeing when they viewed Hale-Bopp next time it passed by planet earth. What they would be like, their clothes, their culture, their Earth?
I then dug out my binoculars and took my first 'up close' look at comet Hale-Bopp and it was beautiful. Remembering that this was a ball of ice 25 miles in diameter hurling through space helped me put some facts into perspective. 25 miles in diameter - how could I relate that to anything I knew. The ocean at its deepest point is 5 miles from the surface. So if Hale-Bopp hit the earth at mid-ocean range, the front edge of the comet would hit the ocean floor while the back edge would still be in the stratosphere. Scientists are stating that Hale-Bopps impact on Earth if it were to hit us (which it is not going to do, by the way) would be 64 times the energy and mass of the object that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. It would probably destroy most of the species on Earth.
As comets go, Hale-Bopp has some pretty unique features. For one, Hale-Bopp actually has two tails - a thin bluish gas tail and a curved yellow dust tail. Another thing that has made Hale-Bopp so unique is that when it was first discovered, it was shining brightly at a vast distance of 650 million miles. That's well beyond the orbit of Jupiter. This unique find gave scientists about eight months to view and study the comet. Previous to that, comets like last years Comet Hyakutake were first seen when the comet was only about two months away before peak visibility.
And how fast is it moving? When Hale-Bopp passed closet to Earth on March 22, it was traveling at 40,000-miles-per-hour. It's maximum speed will range around 99,000 miles-per-hour.
As Hale-Bopp began to sink close to the horizon and we prepared to leave the mountain top, I took my last few glimpses feeling like I had made a new friend. I told myself that I would try to get out every night and visit Hale-Bopp often since it's visit here will not last much longer. Now back in Raleigh, each night as the sun goes down, I search the sky until Hale-Bopp appears. Now that I've had my 'first encounter' I can spot the unique features of the comet as easily I would the individual features of any of my friends. I smile and greet Hale-Bopp one more time.
Hale-Bopp continues to remain bright and high in the northeast sky 90 minutes before sunrise as a hazy star with a dim tail around the constellation Cassiopeia (the 'W' constellation). It is now becoming more visible low in the northwest sky at evening. By March 20th, Hale-Bopp will begin brightening each nigh. It reaches its peak brightness on April 1, the day it's closest to the sun. Hale-Bopp will gradually fade until mid-May, when it disappears from sight and will not be visible again for another 2,400 years. With the evenings getting warmer, there is less need to bundle up, so get out there and take advantage of seeing this unique visitor to our part of the galaxy. It's the 'Comet of the Century'. The comet that Millennium fans are saying its arrival at this time is an omen of good luck for the next 1,000 years. Don't miss this one. Take an opportunity to get out and see it!
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