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Comet still streaking across night sky

April 06, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer

Rodney Martin said this is the busiest he has ever been since taking over the Washington County Planetarium, and it's all because of a mysterious streak in the sky known as the Hale-Bopp comet.

Martin is part of group of local astronomers who have helped organize several comet-watching meets throughout the Tri-State area in recent weeks.

One of the most well-attended ones was last Wednesday when about 500 people showed up at Renfrew Park in Waynesboro to see Hale-Bopp, said Martin.

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The fascination with Hale-Bopp is simple. Martin said it is the first comet in 25 years "that looks like the pictures in the books."

Even when the weather is bad, people still try to look for Hale-Bopp. Martin had prepared to hold another comet-watching meet at Eastern Elementary School in Hagerstown Saturday night, but it was canceled due to the cloudy weather.

But people continued to trickle into the school's parking lot anyway, not knowing for sure whether or not they would be able to see the natural wonder.

Sonny Wilson of Hagerstown said he tried to tell his three children that it was too cloudy to see Hale-Bopp, but they wanted to find out for themselves.

"They're all out for it," said Wilson.

Although Wilson said his children are more interested in Hale-Bopp than he is, he has been noticing it at night when he goes to work.

"It's pretty wild that something moves through this place like this," said Wilson.

Equally impressive is it's size. The bright speck at the head of the comet is 100,000 miles wide, and its tail is 100 million miles long, said Martin. The nucleus, which cannot be seen, is about 25 miles wide, Martin said.

"That's actually the comet. The other stuff is a fog that blows off," said Martin.

Hale-Bopp, which was last seen when the Great Pyramids were being built in Egypt about 4,700 years ago, travels about 27 miles per second, according to Martin.

Comets, made up of water, ice, ammonia, rocks and other materials, were formed when the solar system evolved, according to Martin. After the sun ignited, the energy from the event blew dust and other materials to the outer edge of the solar system, creating comets, he said.

Martin said there has been a flurry of comet activity in recent years. Although comets are well-known, such as Halley's comet, others have never been seen until they pass through the field of an astronomer's telescope, Martin said.

Hale-Bopp was discovered a little over a year ago when astronomers Alan Hale of New Mexico and Thomas Bopp of Arizona noticed the comet simultaneously, said Martin.

This week will still be a good time to see the comet, said Martin. This Friday and Saturday at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Martin and other astronomers from the Tri-State Astronomers will be setting up telescopes to allow people to see Hale-Bopp.

The viewing, which is free, will be held from about 8:30 to about 10 p.m. near the Visitor's Center, according to Martin.

After this week, the comet will begin fading from the horizon and by the end of May it will be gone, Martin said.

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