A Ghostly Beacon in the Night

(This was written in 1997)

After 3000 years, the Hale-Bopp comet has returned. Last time it visited Earth, David was king of Israel, the Pharoahs still ruled in Egypt, and First Nations people settled at the present site of the Musqueam community on the Fraser River.

If the sky is clear, you can see it in the northern hemisphere before sunrise or after sunset (when the sky is dark).  The comet will be at its best for viewing from March 26 to April 9—weather permitting.

When I saw the Hale-Bopp comet about two weeks ago, it looked like a fuzzy star, but when I looked at it with binoculars, it was very bright.  I could see the tail of dust and gas that stretched for 400,000 kilometers—about the distance between the earth and the moon.

The Hale-Bopp comet was named after its recent discoverers, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, who found it in July, 1995.  Hale was in New Mexico and Bopp was in Arizona, and unknown to each other, they discovered it at the same time.

Imagine a dirty snowball the size of Toronto and you’ve got the Hale-Bopp comet.  The centre is a spinning egg-shaped mass of ice, frozen gas and dust about 40 kilometers across.  When the sun heats the core, the frozen material changes into gas, and dust is released.  As ice melts, the comet gives off water vapour at the rate of a room-sized block of ice every second.

Many scientists think that comets are the old remains of the material that first formed our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

The speed of the comet varies with its relationship to the sun. It can move from 36 kilometres per second to 100 kilometres per second. It will be closest to earth around March 23—about 194 million kilometers away.

Seeing a comet puts our violent human history in perspective, thank goodness.  In the old days, people thought comets were a bad omen.  I think the Hale-Bopp comet is a good omen because it inspires our sense of wonder and humility—two qualities lacking in the laissez-faire greed of the global economy. In its awesome mystery, the comet tells me that the fight for justice is as enduring as the beauty of the heavens.

Watch for the Hale-Bopp comet on this visit, or on the next one in 4380 A. D.

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