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Comet Tale 

Talk with comet finder Alan Hale

Artist's rendering.
  • Artist's rendering.
If astronomer Alan Hale had a nickel for every time his name has been mentioned since co-discovering comet Hale-Bopp five years ago, he wouldn't need grants to continue his studies. Hale, along with unwitting accomplice Thomas Bopp, turned his telescope to Sagittarius in late July of 1995 and saw "something fuzzy" where something fuzzy shouldn't have been. He was seeing a new comet.

"I found mine by accident," says Hale, who will be speaking at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History Friday night. "It's just my good fortune that I happened to be looking at that particular part of the sky at the time I did."

Up until 1995, Hale had actively tried to find a comet, but came up empty -- then he "stumbled across an object." He now works off grants searching for similar near-earth asteroids, though his studies are not merely an attempt to have numerous celestial bodies named after him.

While Hale is quick to point out that the chance of something hitting the earth is "fairly remote," he adds that "it's not zero, which is why there's such emphasis on it. The idea is to find such an object before it finds us and detect it with enough lead time to take whatever measures might be necessary to prevent the event from happening."

Hale is not oblivious to the popular significance attached to such objects, especially since his comet will forever be linked with the mass suicide in the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members thought a UFO was attached to Hale-Bopp. "As a scientist, I have to deal with this stuff almost on a daily basis," Hale laments. "There is a lot of nonsense floating around. I live about two hours' drive from a place called Roswell -- which I'm sure you've heard of -- and have to put up with that kind of crap all the time. As unfortunate as the whole Heaven's Gate thing was, I wasn't really surprised."

Yet, beneath the staid scientific exterior, there is a man as moved by celestial events as any of us. "To me, knowing, as an astronomer, how large the universe is makes the awe and grandeur that much more dramatic. The thing I'm proudest of," he says, considering his career to date, "was my trip to Iran last summer to see the total solar eclipse. I feel like I was able to accomplish something beyond science, making a trip like that."

But comet Hale-Bopp was truly a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle -- the projection for its next return is currently the year 4392. Unless you hitch a ride on a UFO and see it from another galaxy, of course.

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