Hale-Bopp Comet’s Appearance Prompts Scientific and Spiritual Responses (Great Events: 1900-2001)
Article abstract: An unusually bright comet approaching Earth resulted in both exciting new astronomical information and age-old fears of the extinction of human life.
Brilliant Celestial Snowball
Comets, with their eye-catching luminous globes and ghostly tails, have stirred a sense of wonder in sky watchers throughout human history. A particularly awe-inspiring comet was the one discovered on July 23, 1995, by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, two amateur astronomers. Comet Hale-Bopp had last been visible from Earth about 4,200 years ago and would not again be observable from the planet for about 2,500 years. Although its closest approach to Earth—about 122 million miles (197 kilometers) on March 22, 1997—was not startling, the record-breaking intrinsic brightness of this comet (peaking at -0.7 or -0.8 magnitude in early April) gave an illusion of its unique nearness to the planet.
Like other comets, Hale-Bopp is a big, dirty snowball composed of a fragile aggregate of rocks, frozen water, and volatile substances such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Hale-Bopp is thought to derive from the Oort cloud—a hypothetical cometary region surrounding the planets of the solar system—and it typically orbits around the Sun in a large elliptical pattern. Its orbit is inclined nearly 90 degrees from the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system), and at its fastest, the comet travels more than 98,000 miles an hour...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
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