Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hale-Bopp Experience

By: Sherry Rashad

One of my childhood dream jobs was being an old school astronomer, the one that peers into the eyepiece of a single-person portable astronomical telescope out at night. Unfortunately, tenured astronomy professors today sit in front of a computer monitor looking as images delivered by their CCD cameras stuck to the end of their astronomical telescopes. Lucky ones even have access to live feed Hubble Space Telescope downloads. But I’ll probably never forget my Hale-Bopp comet experience back in 1997, especially since I was lucky enough to have purchased a starter astronomical telescope a few months before the Hale-Bopp comet became headline news.

Maybe it was the “mild guilt” of not having an astronomical telescope back in July 16, 1994 when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Or the appearance of the extremely long tailed "Great Comet of 1996" a.k.a. Hyakutake Comet back in 1996. Though spectacularly visible to naked eye observation because it's the closest comet to approach Earth in the past 200 years or so. Comet Hyakutake really compelled me into purchasing a modest starter kit capable of magnifying up to 300 times and cost 500 US dollars or less.

Eventually, I did purchase a Hong Kong made Tasco model which got good reviews from Sky and Telescope magazine on refractors costing below 300 US dollars back in 1996. And my modest but sensible investment really did pay off when the comet Hale-Bopp arrived back in 1997. This comet was an oddity, originating in the Oort Cloud region of our Solar System with a period of 2,380 years. The Hale-Bopp comet will next be seen in the year 4377.

Unlike other fair-weather amateur astronomers, my astronomical telescope hasn’t retired into some storage space gathering dust unlike most of my fellow Hale-Bopp comet watchers. Though I have to drive three ours or so into the country to use my astronomical telescope in it’s intended purpose due to increasing levels of light pollution in urban areas. Despite of the dearth of comets visiting the inner Solar System in the 21st Century, our Solar System’s two closest gas giants – namely the planets Jupiter and Saturn – still manage to attract my interest.