Bishop Museum Planetarium
Comet Hale-Bopp will make its closest
approach to Earth on Saturday.

Hale-Bopp’s best
is yet to come

The comet will be spectacular
in the early evening late this month
and early April

By Helen Altonn

Comet Hale-Bopp has put on a good early morning show for islanders with the best yet to come in the evening.

"It is performing exceptionally well, exceeding most expectations at this point," said Peter Michaud, Bishop Museum Planetarium manager.

The comet was visible through today just before morning twilight in the northeast.

For the past few days, it could be seen morning and night as it shifted to the night sky in the northwest, University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat pointed out.

It will be spectacular in the early evening late this month and through early April, the astronomers said.

The 5 billion-year-old ice and dirt ball will be closest to Earth Saturday, March 22, when it's about 122 million miles away. It will be closest to the sun March 31.

Hale-Bopp's visit is overshadowing another big event for sky-watchers, Michaud noted. A near-total eclipse of the moon will occur Sunday. He said no one has paid much attention to the eclipse because of the comet, but Hawaii residents will get a good look at it. It will be about 93 percent in the Earth's shadow as it rises at 6:40 p.m., he said.

Some astronomers say the moon will turn red, but usually that doesn't occur unless it's a total eclipse, Michaud said. "You may see a little red hue.... People will have to go out and see for themselves."

They may also notice Mars is a lot brighter. It is directly opposite the sun now, and closest to the Earth, so it will be more brilliant for a few months, Michaud said.

That many dramatic events visible to the naked eye rarely occur in the heavens in such a short time period, astronomers point out.

But Comet Hale-Bopp, appearing in the solar system for the first time in 4,000 years, has star billing in the celestial show.

For the best viewing in the next weeks, Michaud advises looking from twilight to about 8 p.m. from a dark location. No special equipment is needed, but more details are visible with binoculars.

The comet will appear about as high above the west-northwestern horizon as an arms-length "shaka-sign," the planetarium said in a Hale-Bopp information packet. It will be about 30 degrees to the north, or right, of the setting sun.

While it's still visible in the early morning sky, look for it in the northeast between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

It doesn't streak across the sky, as some people think, but drifts against background stars. It's believed to be one of the three largest comets in 1,000 years, with a nucleus about 25 to 30 miles across - the size of Kauai. Comet Halley was only about 8 miles across, and Comet Hyakutake was estimated at less than 2 miles across.

Scientists describe comets as "dirty snowballs," or frozen remnants of material that formed the solar system. "When we look at a comet, we're seeing the beginning of ourselves," said Oahu State University astronomer Tom Burns.

Hale-Bopp is producing a large cloud of gas (its coma or head) as it speeds toward the sun at 100,000 miles an hour. The tail is created as solar wind (radiation and particles from the sun) blows on the comet, forcing vapor and dust to drift for millions of miles.

When it's closest to the sun, Hale-Bopp's tail is expected to stretch over 100 million miles.

What people see as the comet's head and tail is sunlight reflected off its vapor and dust cloud.

For further information, call the Bishop Museum Planetarium's Hale-Bopp Hotline: 848-4162.

Bishop Museum offers
cruises to watch comet

By Star-Bulletin staff

The Bishop Museum Planetarium is offering a sky-gazing sea adventure for residents who want to escape city lights to see Comet Hale-Bopp.

Two cruises are planned March 28 and 29 aboard the Kona Queen.

The expeditions will begin with check-in at the Hawaii Maritime Center, Pier 7, from 5 to 5:45 p.m., when there will be a comet orientation.

The cruises are scheduled from 6:45 to 8:30 p.m. The cost for museum and maritime center members is $22.

For nonmember adults the cost is $25, and for children ages 6 to 12, it's $15. No children under 6.

The expedition cost includes admission to the Maritime Center and an evening admission coupon for the planetarium's program "Comet, From Ice to Fire."

Call 848-4106 for details.

Related stories on
Feb. 17 and Feb. 25

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