What is the Comet Hale Bopp?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

The passing of a comet often creates excitement among many people. One such object, comet Hale Bopp, is known as the most widely witnessed comet of the twentieth century. Visible for an entire 18-month period, it was also the brightest seen in decades.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

Comet Hale Bopp was first seen on July 23, 1995. It was so far from the sun that scientists predicted that when it passed Earth it would be extremely bright. These predictions came true, for during the 18 months that comet Hale Bopp was visible to the naked eye, it was so bright that it was given the nickname the Great Comet of 1997. Comet Hale Bopp passed perihelion on April 1, 1997.

With the recent popularity of the Internet during this time, Hale Bopp quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Websites across the world provided daily updates and images from international locations. Tracking the progress of the comet became a favorite pastime for many people during its period of visibility.

Two observers are credited with discovering the comet Hale Bopp. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, avid fans of space observation, were both from the United States. Hale discovered the comet in his own driveway in New Mexico shortly after midnight. Upon realizing what he had seen, Hale contacted the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and reported his find.

At the same time, Bopp had seen the comet while out with friends in Stanfield, Arizona. Though he did not have a telescope of his own, he chanced to witness the comet through a friend's lens. Like Hale, he consulted star maps to be certain that his discovery was a new one, then promptly alerted the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams.

Located between Saturn and Jupiter, comet Hale Bopp was the greatest distance from earth a comet had ever been discovered from. Its orbital position was at 7.2 total astronomical units from the sun. After its established discovery, it was reported that the the Anglo-Australian Telescope had already taken a photo of the comet two years prior to the finding. At its previous distance of 13 astronomical units from the sun, such a photo is normally impossible to capture.

Like many historic events, the Hale Bopp comet of 1997 caused some controversy. Some people believed that the comet marked the arrival of an alien spaceship. This view spread rapidly, and inspired a panic in many areas around the globe. Following this panic, the Heaven's Gate cult committed a mass suicide.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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