Eric Holcomb

Address: 1900 NE 3rd St STE 106 PMB 361, Bend, OR 97701-3889
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Comet Hale-Bopp (1997)

Aside from the brief but spectacular appearance of Comet Hyakutake in 1996, Comet Hale-Bopp remained the center of attention for two years following its discovery in the summer of 1995, one of the longest apparitions ever recorded for any comet. In fact, Hale-Bopp was still visible from the Hubble Space Telescope and from some large earthbound observatories until at least 2002. Although now in the southern hemisphere, Hale-Bopp, like Hyakutake before it, put on its best show for northern hemisphere observers, remaining "circumpolar" for two weeks in March of 1997 as seen from Seattle.

Although Hale-Bopp's closest approach to Earth was at a distant 125 million miles, the comet made up for this with its enormous size, giving it a total brightness of about magnitude 0 (comparable to the bright star Vega) and tail lengths up to about 15 degrees for its gas and dust tails. (Hyakutake did not have a prominent dust tail.) Both comets rank among the great comets of the 20th century, but Hale-Bopp also ranks near the top of the list in all of recorded history in terms of absolute size and brightness. Having two such comets in two years is highly unusual, and likely won't be repeated anytime soon!

Eric observed Hale-Bopp on 92 different nights (a personal record) from August 25, 1995 to May 13, 1997. The photo below was taken from the public observatory at Goldendale, Washington at about 8:00 PM on the night of March 23, 1997, when a near-total eclipse of the moon happened at the ideal time for west coast observers to see the comet without the usual interference from moonlight at full moon. This photo, taken with a normal lens, shows the large coma merged with the bright whitish-brown dust tail and the entire visible gas tail (fainter blue). The two tails filled the entire 10-degree field of view in wide-angle binoculars. The dust tail tends to curve away from a path directly opposite the sun because the dust particles are heavier and move slower than gas molecules. Four of the five stars defining the "W" shape in the constellation of Cassiopeia are visible above and to the right of the comet.

HaleBopp.JPG (124778 bytes)

Click on thumbnail image to see a larger version of this picture with the details discussed above.