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The Sunday TimesPlus

6th April 1997



Looking in the Bopp direction

By Arshad M.Hadjirin.

"Despite all the fuss and publicity, I was not able to see the comet."

This could only be the experience of an unlucky person who was not aware of where to project his vision into the deep dark skies to see the Hale-Bopp, the comet which appears only once in 4210 years.

Though local authorities have not taken serious efforts to enable each and every town or village to see the Hale-Bopp, it might be interesting to know that this comet is so enormous, that you don’t need a telescope or a special apparatus to see it.

It is easy for anyone to view this comet, given the right conditions prevailing in the area where you live. A clear cloudless sky, where city lights and haze are absent would be the best. If you are living in the hills, you are advised to get to the top of a hill as this comet, unlike every other one, seems to appear a few metres above the horizon, and could easily be covered by tall landscapes.

Others should reach out for a flat land, with no imposing structures across the horizon. A beach would be an ideal location, provided the horizon is not cloudy. Now comes the question of where to look .

When and where the comet can be seen
Dr.Chandana Jayaratne, Senior Lecturer in Physics, University of Colombo and Consultant on Astronomy to the Arthur C.Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, after studying the exact positions and times during which the comet will be visible to the Lankans, said that, the comet will be generally seen in the western skies from today till April 10. And then from April 24 to May 12 in a direction between north west and the west. The best times would be between sunset and 8.30 p.m.

For those who are familiar with the deep dark skies and the celestial objects, the comet lies right underneath the constellation, Perseus and it will continue to traverse Perseus till April 21. Afterwards, until May 2, the comet will be seen between Perseus and Taurus. After May 2, the comet would appear to traverse within the constellation Taurus.

But of course for those who still find it difficult to locate the comet under the best of circumstances, the Sinhala National Service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation is having a special live broadcast on Tuesdays and Fridays till the 15th of this month (i.e.; April 8th, 11th, and 15th) between 7.30 and 8.00 p.m.

This special service ideally catering to laymen, who are not familiar with astronomical data, will operate from the Arthur C.Clark Centre at Moratuwa, and describe the skies in general and the (stars) constellations near Hale-Bopp. The public who need further clarifications about the location of the comet could call the following hot-line-numbers and obtain on the spot information pertaining to the exact location of the comet from any part of the country. The numbers are : 645838, 645839, 647461, 446546.

According to Jayaratne during the period between April 11 and 23 the moon’s powerful light will bleach the comet’s illumination. This phenomenon will be repeated again after the 13th of May when the moon shows up its face. "But unfortunately after the moon sets into the dark after the 24th of May or so, the Hale-Bopp wouldn’t be bright enough to be seen in the western skies," said Dr. Jayaratne.

Sadly a random survey by ‘The Sunday Times’, shows that except for a few leading schools in each district, there seems to be no proper telescopes or special arrangements to view this comet, which could only be seen again in the Year 3676.

According to scientists, Dr.Jayaratne says the next visit of this great comet will occur in another 2,380 years time and not in 4,210 years, as earlier predicted. This, he says is owing to larger planets like Jupiter and Saturn’s strong attractions towards the comet, which reduces the path of the comet drastically.

This tiny looking object, discovered on July 22-23, 1995 by two astronomers in the United States, Alan- Hale and Thomas J.Bopp, grew larger by the day and came as close as 197 million kilometres to the earth on March 22, 1997. Dr.Jayaratne said that even at this great distance Hale-Bopp could be clearly seen now, and is the brightest visitor to pass inside the earth’s orbit since the great comet was seen by the Tycho Brahe in 1577.

Hale the 39-year old astronomer, from New Mexico, was as usual searching the skies, longing to discover a comet, when all of a sudden he saw a little fuzzy object around Sagittarius. This object wasn’t a familiar one to Hale though it might have meant nothing to an ordinary laymen. Hale checking the star chart on-line, was convinced that this strange object was a comet. This was proved beyond doubt when he found an hour later that this fuzz ball had moved relative to the stars.

The same night happened to be an eventful and unforgettable one for Bopp, 47, an amateur who projected his telescope towards the Sagittarius from Phoenix in the Arizona desert. Bopp was fortunate enough to spot this comet, as he and his friend were taking turns at the telescope. Soon after the find Bopp,informed the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, at the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory.

The following day both Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp got acclamation for the discovery of one of the biggest comets recorded so far.

The comet has since been in the news especially since it could now be seen by the naked eye without any complications or the need for a telescope. People living in the northern hemisphere above the latitude of 45 degrees are indeed privileged as the comet could be seen right throughout the night after dusk.

Of course, those living in the southern hemisphere do also get a chance in these days to clearly view the comet.

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