Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery

Philipp Salzgeber // CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

Stardust Created 7 Billion Years Ago Is the Oldest Stuff on Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Between 5 and 7 billion years ago, a dying star shot an explosion of particles through space. Some of that stardust ended up in a meteorite that landed in Murchison, Australia, in 1969. And according to new research, it's officially the oldest known solid material on Earth.

For the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 30 years after the research began, scientists pulverized fragments of the meteorite to determine its age. The resulting paste-like substance reportedly smelled like "rotten peanut butter." The strange aroma "comes from byproducts of the breakdown of the abiotic organic molecules—molecules that didn't form from life—in the Murchison meteorite," lead author Philipp R. Heck, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum, tells Mental Floss.

Heck used acid to further break down the rock and isolate the grains of stardust, which are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. To date the particles, the team measured neon isotopes that formed when cosmic rays hit the solid matter making up the stardust. The older the stardust is, the more cosmic rays it has been exposed to, so the amount of neon isotopes it contains can be used to estimate its age. Heck compares the method to collecting water in a bucket to determine how long it's been raining.

The team found that the meteorite contained particles older than 5.5 billion years and possibly as old as 7 billion years. The Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years, and the sun for 4.6 billion. The formation of this super-old stardust is believed to have occurred during an "astral baby boom," according to a statement released by the Field Museum, in which an uptick in stellar activity literally created the matter that shapes the world we know today.

When the grains formed, "most stars that we see tonight in the sky didn’t exist," Heck says. "The bright stars that would have been shining through our galaxy were the previous generation of stars, our parent stars. [They] formed the elements that later became fuel and ingredients for the solar system, Earth, and us. These stars formed the material that we are made out of."

While the grains in the Murchison meteorite are the oldest solid material on the planet, many of the gases on Earth are much older. Some of the hydrogen in your body, for example, may have originated with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

17-Year-Old NASA Intern Helped Discover Twin-Starred 'Tatooine' Planet

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

On January 6, NASA announced that it had detected an Earth-sized planet, TOI 700 d, 100 light-years away from Earth that could be capable of hosting life. The same mission also led to the discovery of a rare planet with twin suns courtesy of a 17-year-old intern.

As CNN reports, high school student Wolf Cukier was combing through data collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, when he noticed something strange about one binary star system. The system TOI 1338 consists of two stars that orbit each other once every 15 days. When the smaller of the two stars passes across the larger one, it's known as a stellar eclipse. But one signal that had been flagged as a stellar eclipse wasn't an eclipse at all; just three days into his internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Cukier had found a planet orbiting the two stars.

The planet, since dubbed TOI 1338 b, is like a real-life version of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine from the Star Wars movies. It's located roughly 1300 light-years away in the Pictor constellation and is somewhere between Neptune and Saturn in size. Twin-starred planets are rare, and this marks this first one detected through NASA's planet-hunting TESS mission.

TESS launched in 2018 with the goal of finding new planets outside our own solar system. Planets are typically discovered by recording stars over time and looking for dips in their brightness that indicate passing planets. This system becomes complicated when dealing with binary star systems, as dips in light caused by a planet in transit can get confused with an eclipsing star and vice versa. Without Cukier's keen eye, this latest discovery may have gone undetected.

It may have the same number of stars as Tatooine, but the similarities TOI 1338 b shares with the planet from Star Wars end there. So far, TOI 700 d is the only planet discovered by TESS that has a chance of being habitable.

[h/t CNN]

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