When anything makes an appearance as bright and dramatic as the Hale-Bopp comet, it forever stays in mind, even if it happened only once in a lifetime. It isn’t surprising why Hale-Bopp is one of the most watched comets. If you don’t already know what comet Hale-Bopp is, here are the facts about this brightest comet that will blow your mind.
What Is Hale-Bopp?
Hale-Bopp is a comet that falls under the category of long-period comets. Compared with short-period comets, these groups of comets are comparatively less predictable because of their elliptical orbits. Hale-Bopp is a bright comet with blue and white tails.
As per a study by the Swinburne University of Technology, Hale-Bopp has an orbital duration of more than 200 years. This strikingly bright comet came closest to earth in 1997 and remained visible for 18 months. Its majestic brightness was most visible in the Northern Hemisphere.
How Was Hale-Bopp Discovered?
The discovery of Hale-Bopp is two-fold. Both the independent discoveries were made by amateur astronomers Thomas Bopp in Arizona and Alan Hale in New Mexico. And this is where the comet earned its name. NASA had recorded this phenomenal discovery as the farthest comet to be found by amateurs when it was discovered.
The discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet by the two astronomers took place on July 23, 1995, independently near spherical cluster M70. It was a surprising discovery because it seemed to have suddenly appeared in the spot where it hadn’t been two weeks ago.
Alan Hale has a doctorate in astronomy. When he trained his telescope to the M70 area, he was amazed to see a foreign dot that hadn’t been there a couple of weeks ago when he looked. Hale believed that the object was a comet when he discovered its movement after checking back after some hours.
Incidentally, Thomas Bopp also discovered the same comet, and both men reported their findings to the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.
The newly-identified comet was named C/1995 O1 and intrigued every astronomer with its bright emission even at a great distance. As a long-period comet, it’s hard for astronomers to predict Hale-Bopp, which is essentially just a ball of dust and ice.
The Origin Of Hale-Bopp Comet
It isn’t quite clear how Hale-Bopp originated. But most research concluded that Hale-Bopp has its origin in the Oort Cloud, like other long-period comets.
Oort Cloud is a globular collection of ice particles whose position lies at an approximate distance of 2000 to 1000000 Astronomical Units (AU) from the sun.
An Astronomical Unit is a unit used to measure the distance between the sun and the earth. One AU equals 150 million kilometers which is the estimated distance between the earth and the sun.
Because of the distant position of the Oort Cloud from the sun, the objects in it are prone to gravitational turmoil. So, even the slightest forces can unhinge the objects in the Oort Cloud and send them to an elliptical orbit that revolves around the sun.
Hale-Bopp: The Comet That Leaves An Impression
Every time something as remarkable as the appearance of Hale-Bopp happens, the tabloids get full. Hale-Bopp incited the interests of the public, and it was apparent on both the internet and in newspapers.
It wasn’t long before some professionalism was put into the survey. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA reported that Hale-Bopp is a gigantic comet with a diameter that spans 30-50 km.
There aren’t many other significant comets that have garnered the same attention and views as Hale-Bopp. The comet features an absolute magnitude of -1 which means that it is one of the brightest heavenly bodies to orbit the inner solar system.
In comparison, the luminosity of Halley’s comet is nothing compared to the brightness of the Hale-Bopp comet. Speculating the brightness from the same distance, the latter is 1000 times more luminous than Halley’s comet.
Hale-Bopp And The Heaven’s Gate Cult Tragedy
The appearance of Hale-Bopp is revolutionary. Not only did it create mass fascination in space and heavenly bodies, but it is also linked with a tragic incident related to the Heaven’s Gate cult. This refers to the mass suicide of 39 members of the cult in San Diego as the comet passed across the earth.
Heaven’s Gate was a religious cult led by Marshall Applewhite. The cult members follow the belief that their bodies are like vessels that could be abandoned for a higher purpose of the soul and spirit. The tragedy was doomed to happen when the cult started believing that Hale-Bopp didn’t appear alone. They believed that the comet was followed by an alien spacecraft.
NASA reports that March 22, 1997, is the day when Hale-Bopp came the closest to earth. The mass suicide happened around the time when the comet was closest. But how did it happen? The short answer is poison.
Marshall Applewhite, along with 38 other members, 17 men, and 21 women, took their own lives believing that the appearance of the comet was a cosmic sign calling them to leave their bodies behind so that their souls could embark on the ghost alien spacecraft for a new life.
The incident took place in San Diego, and the dead bodies wearing matching clothes were found in bunk beds in a mansion. The members consumed a deadly mixture of vodka and Phenobarbital to die and prepare their souls to be transported to what they believed Hale-Bopp is bringing along with it.
Will We See Hale-Bopp In The Skies Again?
Not likely. At least not in our time. The latest appearance of Hale-Bopp on earth’s sky was in 1997. Before that, it appeared once about 4200 years ago. So this means that it will be thousands of years until the comet makes another appearance.
According to estimates, this comet isn’t set to return to earth’s sphere until 4385. This large active comet has an approximate diameter of 40 km with a speed of 1.2 billion miles in four years.
A good number of amateur astronauts have discovered foreign objects in space. But with more and more spacecraft and satellites emerging, such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the detection of unfamiliar objects has become relatively more relaxed.