Trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet

Dawn Jenkins, Cuyahoga Astronomical Association

When Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp discovered their comet way back on July 22, 1995, amateur astronomers had to explain why this newly discovered "Comet of the Century" was so unusual. We weren't really sure if it would put on the lovely show that we have witnessed. Way beyond Jupiter, Hale-Bopp was discovered near the well known globular cluster, M-70 in Sagittarius. It was 7.15 A.U. away from our favorite blue planet. Its brightness then became a legend, "This Thing is Huge!" and What is Everyone so Excited About?" At perihelion, its speed would be 44-km per second and it was possibly a whopping 40-km across. Hale Bopp promised the expectant astronomical community a wonderful display.

My first observation of Comet Hale-Bopp was on September 23, 1995 at the Black River Astronomical Society's regular O.T.A.A. convention in Birmingham, Ohio. It was a rather dull patch of fuzz in the sky, which I observed in 12-inch and 10-inch reflectors as well as a 6-inch refractor. It was even visible in a 5-inch Comet Catcher telescope! But it wasn't very exciting, except for the knowledge that it was years, not months away.

My log then falls silent on the issue of C/1995 O1, better known as Comet Hale-Bopp. But in February of 1996, my observing log explodes, however, when I became a fanatic observer of another famous comet, Hyakutake. My first view of this comet was from my home in Lakewood, when it was a notable blue patch approaching Libra. It hooked me in right then and there! I spent every single clear night looking at it, watching as it raced across the sky like a bullet. Oh no, I thought, everyone is going to think that this is the one we've been raving about. After all the excitement died down, I found myself wishing I had taken some pictures like many of my astronomy buddies had. The "Comet of the Century" was gone and I didn't have even one photo. I bought myself a Canon with a mechanical shutter and waited expectantly for Hale-Bopp to swing into view.

The next observations came on June 15, 1996 at the Chagrin Valley Astronomical Society's O.T.A.A., convention in Huntsburg. Hale-Bopp was cruising near Jupiter. It was nothing more than a fuzzy patch, a wisp. The C.V.A.S.'s club 14-inch telescope showed that it had a slightly elongated core which I speculated might be a jet. (Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of the fabulous display that was to come!) Later that month, I observed the comet, naked eye and with binoculars from a very dark campsite in Arkona, Canada. The moon was piercingly bright and the sky was enticingly dark.

In October, we observed the comet at Hidden Hollow '96 at the Richland Astronomical Society's O.T.A.A. convention. Bob Summerfield treated us all to wonderful views of the comet in that 36" monster that he erected on the hill. Everyone was looking at Hale-Bopp through their telescopes, speculating about its future performance. We spent much of the convention sharing our comet stories, reminiscing about Comet Hyakutake, sharing our photographs and dreaming. Hale-Bopp escaped very few, if any, of the telescopes that amateur astronomer's lugged to the convention that week. Norm Oberle's 31" telescope in the Warren Rupp Observatory held the comet in its grasp long enough for many of us to take a peak.

And then, the clouds came. November and December in Northern Ohio are traditionally non-observing months. To be sure, the clouds part occasionally and we risk losing our limbs to frostbite, to take one last look because somehow the sky seems crystal clear when it happens. Many Novembers, I've watched with dismay as banks of nasty, gray clouds march down from the North to block out the Sun for months at a time. Last Winter, I watched the sky grimly in January, wishing vainly for a break in the clouds and got nothing. Then in early February, I took a full time job and lamented that I wouldn't have time to even look at the comet. On February 20, 1997, the clouds broke open, accidentally giving me a chance to glimpse that wonderful fuzz ball that was glaring in the Northeast. Even from my home in Lakewood, the comet's tail stretched half a degree. I watched the comet until 6:15, then raced to get ready for work. It was only the beginning of many pre-work mornings that I rose in time to get in some observing. A bright comet out there? I just had to see what it was doing. Five days later, I was up early again, straining for a glimpse through the clouds.

On March 9, at 3 AM Sunday morning, I left my house for an hour trek out to the country. As I got off the freeway, still half an hour from my destination, I watched in dismay as the comet disappeared behind a bank of clouds. I waited all weekend for....this? When we got to the observing site, I refused to get out my camera and knew in my heart that the clouds would never leave before twilight began. I brought out my 6-inch telescope and set it up, hoping for the best. It must have been well into twilight before the clouds lifted and the comet came into view. This was the first time I set up my scope and I couldn't believe the sight of those fabulous hoods that had developed on part of the head away from the Sun. As the morning light faded the comet, I swung my scope around to take a peek at Mars. The comet was still visible naked eye just before sunrise.

The next morning the comet looked better from my home in the city than it did in "The Sticks." The sight of those hoods the morning before intrigued me so much, that I set up my telescope even though I was pressed to get ready for work. It didn't matter that I would only be able to look at it for a few minutes. The head was incredibly bright and I saw four distinct hoods. In my binoculars, the tail stretched over 3 degrees. From the City! That evening, I made a side trip to the Cleveland Metroparks site on Lewis Road before attending the meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association. I gapped at the comet skimming the trees in the West.

On March 12, I was up again, assembling my telescope in the early morning light. On the evening of March 16, Sunday night, a work night, I chanced a trek out to the country on a partly cloudy night. When I arrived out at Letha, a few members of C.A.A. were already there, looking forlornly up at the sky. I set up my scope. Clouds swarmed, but I was able to view the comet in my telescope. The night was lousy, but there were six of us, snapping pictures with our cameras every time the clouds parted long enough to allow the comet to poke through. The session ended when the clouds got more stubborn.

On March 19th, I set up before work, then observed that evening in the Metroparks, snapping even more pictures though the clouds. That night the cold air had a real bite and I'm afraid the photography session didn't last long. Then came the night of the Lunar Eclipse and I was surprised by a clear sky. I woke after the Moon had reached maximum eclipse and I ran out to look to see what was happening. I didn't even know the comet was still visible when the eclipse began. I'd never have seen it from home anyway. Five days later, I made my last morning observation, again setting up my scope to look at the hoods.

The first real break came on March 26, 1997 which was the night of the year for the comet! I had committed to setting up my equipment at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. For hours, I showed curious and delighted people the comet through my 11 x 80 binoculars that I had mounted on my large binocular stand. Many of them swore that those binoculars held the best view. They wanted to see the tail, I suspect. It was a real delight to share Hale-Bopp with so many excited people. The following evening I was back at Letha, snapping photographs with my Canon. I went out to again on March 31 and April 1, near the time of perihelion. I marveled that we could see the comet during perihelion, I guess I just didn't realize it was possible. On April 2, I went back to the Museum and treated a few hundred more individuals to the view in my telescope.

On April 6, the weather people were predicting thunderstorms. My husband and I spent the evening at Huntington Beach on Lake Erie, snapping photos of Hale-Bopp, which treated me to the best observing session yet. I am at a loss to explain why most of all, this evening was the best. The wind was howling, and white-capped waves rushed to shore. The light pollution there didn't matter, the comet was most magnificent. It was so wonderful, I went out the very next evening, but it just wasn't the same. On April 8, the Moon was becoming a factor, but again, I snapped photographs from a friend's back yard. I observed the comet again on April 14, 15 and 19. I was still taking pictures on the night of the 15th, with a cardboard shield to block out the Moon. By the 19th, I gave up, just looking up and noticing how Hale-Bopp has grown small and pale. (Sigh!) I suppose I won't be around, when it peels around the Sun next time. I feel there's still a few good years in me yet, however, and sooner....or later, another bright one has to come around. Hope I can still lift the scope!

*My last peek at Comet Hale Bopp came on the evening of May 10, when the comet hovered a mere 15 degrees off the horizon from Stinchcomb's Memorial in the Cleveland Metroparks. This was the site of my last Hale Bopp observations. The tail was a mere 1/2 deg in the city lights when Al and I finally spotted it. We had an extra special treat as fireworks went off in the distance that night. It made quite a send off for Hale Bopp!


Beam back to Comets!

Beam me back, Astra!