The Seasonal Almanac: Awaiting the Arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp

The Seasonal Almanac covers astronomical events and nature, including information on professional and amateur astronomers watching for the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp.

| December 1996/January 1997

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    Comet Kohoutek: computer-enhanced photograph taken from the Skylab space station on Christmas Day, 1973.

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The Seasonal Almanac shares astronomical events in December 1996 and January 1997. This issue includes information on the long-anticipated arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp, one of the largest, brightest comets in 1,000 years to be visible from earth. 

The wait is almost over. For a year and a half, professional and amateur astronomers have been watching for the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp, what they think is one of the largest or most intrinsically active comets of the past thousand years heading toward our inner solar system. It will never get close to Earth and it will not zoom in so near the sun as to be wildly stirred. But this comet looks to be so powerful it won't have to get near Earth and sun to become spectacular in our skies, possibly more spectacular than any comet in a millennium.

As winter progresses, we should see the mighty visitor brighten and get a little higher in the east before dawn each day, then as it reaches its brightest, switch over to shine for several hours after nightfall in the west in late March and April. It could sport a tail so bright that much of it will be seen even from big cities for two whole months.

The name of the mighty visitor? Since it was discovered independently, by American amateur astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, it is known to all the world and all posterity as Comet Hale-Bopp.

A Word of Caution

Before we get too excited about the prospect of grandeur in our skies, though, there must always be a strong word of caution: comets are fickle. We can calculate where they are going but the brightness and tail appearance of a comet is difficult to predict. Caribbean cruises to see Comet Hale-Bopp have been planned. The prospect of it has already generated entire books, T-shirts, and tabloid TV and newspaper features. But a similar great preparation was made for the infamous Comet Kohoutek in late 1973. As some of us still recall, Kohoutek proved to be about 100 times dimmer than initially expected and thus was a very modest glimmer to the naked eye.

Scientists have no reason to believe that Hale-Bopp will fall short as Kohoutek did. At the time of this writing, Hale-Bopp has been brightening about as steadily and dependably as a comet can. Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves of what a great comet scientist once said: "Never bet on a come." There is a strong likelihood that Comet Hale-Bopp will be as bright and spectacular as forecasted. But anyone who says he or she can absolutely guarantee that is just plain wrong.

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