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Comet Hale-Bopp

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 Things to beware of in 1997:
 Sudden outbreaks of hostility, racial and otherwise, which seem to 
 just as suddenly be quelled.  Some may notice a fine drizzlelike
 mist preceding these events.
 TUCSON, Ariz. -- Viewed through powerful telescopes, comet Hale-Bopp is 
 already putting on a spectacular light display and astronomers say the best is 
 still six months away.
 "I'm looking forward to a fantastic show in mid-spring," said Harold Weaver, 
 an astronomer who has been following the progress of Hale-Bopp through the 
 Hubble Space Telescope.
 Weaver said the comet is erupting with bursts of gas every 18 to 26 days as 
 water is boiled away from its icy core.
 "It would look like a sprinkler if you could see it from above," Weaver said 
 at the national meeting this week of the planetary division of the American 
 Astronomical Society.
 Astronomers have been observing Hale-Bopp for more than a year, and many 
 observatories are gearing for a major study of the speeding space traveler.
 Discovered in July 1995 by amateur astronomers Alan Hale of Stanfield, Ariz., 
 and Thomas Bopp of Cloudcroft, N.M., the streaking ball of ice and dust is the 
 second major comet to pass near Earth in what astronomers have come to call "a 
 year of the comet."
 Last May, the world's telescopes focused on comet Hyakutake. It was the 
 brightest comet viewed from Earth since the appearance in 1976 of Comet West.
 Weaver said that Hale-Bopp is considerably bigger than Hyakutake and may erupt 
 with 30 times more gas and dust. But Hale-Bopp, in its nearest pass of the 
 Earth on April 1, will be more than 100 million miles farther away, somewhat 
 diminishing its light show.
 Hale-Bopp appears to be about 18 to 25 miles across, about four times bigger 
 than Hyakutake, but the new comet is much more energetic in the release of gas.
 "This comet is considerably bigger than Haley's, which is considered to be a 
 large comet," said Weaver.
 Astronomers observe comets in different spectrums in order to measure their 
 chemical content. Gases spewing from the comet and then lighted by the sun 
 contain chemicals that have specific light signatures.
 For taking such data, said Weaver, "Hale-Bopp will be the most productive 
 comet we have ever measured."
 Hale-Bopp is expected to be visible just after sunset in the western sky 
 starting on April Fools day. It will dip behind the sun after a few days and 
 not be visible again until August. When it returns to view, however, it will 
 be more than 200 million miles from Earth and much fainter.
 Mike A'Hearn, a University of Maryland astronomer, said that Hyakutake has 
 "opened up a whole new field of study" because astronomers discovered the 
 comet was producing X-rays.
 X-rays had never before been measured from a comet, but once that radiation 
 was found with Hyakutake, astronomers reexamined achieved data from earlier 
 comets. A'Hearn said that X-rays were found to have been produced from five 
 earlier comets.
 Astronomers are still uncertain exactly how the comet produces X-rays, but 
 A'Hearn said it may be from the collision of clouds of dust erupting from the 
 comet and the solar wind, the steady stream of radiation from the sun.
 A'Hearn said that early studies of Hale-Bopp suggest that the comet is not a 
 stranger to the neighborhood of the Earth.
 "We know the comet has been through the inner solar system hundreds of times," 
 said A'Hearn.
 He cautioned observers not to be overconfident about just how bright Hale-Bopp 
 will be from Earth. Some comets in the past have been a great disappointment.
 "The predictions are notoriously unpredictable for comets," said A'Hearn.

Next: An Astronomer's Personal Statement on UFOs, by Alan Hale