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Discovering the Comet That Lives In All of Us

March 09, 1997|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My headlights cut through the fog like weak music. I rolled down a window and rubbed a peephole on the clouded inside of my windshield. The cool, wet air that rushed in, mixed with the scent of sage and chaparral, tasted like Mentholatum. I urged the old sedan farther up the slick, winding road, alone, higher and higher into the Hollywood Hills. It was about 8:30.

I had to see a man about a comet.

The Griffith Observatory, named after a park named for a person who had no interest in astronomy, looked like Xanadu, Coleridge's mythic, stately pleasure domes glowing fuzzily through the thick mist. I parked. A few couples strolled under lampposts, seemingly more phantom than flesh. My shoes crunched on the asphalt with an unreal volume, like they do in the movies.

I walked into the main hall, past that pendulum that never quite convinces me that the Earth really spins on its axis, and into the Planetarium. My man turned out to be a woman.

"I'm Bronwen Jackson." The voice carried a commanding, scholarly eloquence, yet emerged from the body of a smiling, effervescent pixie. She sat at the controls of the remarkable room, a wizard who would turn a mathematically curved stucco ceiling into galaxies, super novas, constellations and ultimate mystery. She looked like the pilot of a ship. A star ship. I told her who I was.

"You have some questions about comets?" she asked, signing extra-credit slips for schoolkids filing out after the evening sky show, "Comet Watch."

"Yeah," I said. "Specifically, this Hale-Bopp thing that's coming in March. Every second movie or TV show is talking comet and asteroid doomsday. It's millennium madness."

"Oh, tell me about it," she said. I did.

"The 'X-Files'-type radio shows and tabloids," I said, "would have us all think that the Hale-Bopp Comet is either, A) an intergalactic ship driven by nasty guys with big frontal lobes; B) the religious icon of choice returning to save the saved and damn the damned; C) a real comet that's going to take out L.A., or at least Disneyland; or D) Elvis."

Jackson said that Hale-Bopp was none of the above. That it is an amok ball of ice and silicate and carbon whipping around the solar system. That it will come near enough only to give us earthlings one humbling sky show. Still, she added, humanity shouldn't rest easy. There are millions of undocumented asteroids and comets that could send us packing, like one did to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Day-before-yesterday, science time.

"Then there's the Swift-Tuttle comet, due here in July 2126," she added, with a raised eyebrow. "That comet will actually cross the earth's orbit and miss us by 34 days! We'll have to keep an eye on that one."

Well, someone else will. I figured to be more than 34 days away from Swift-Tuttle in 2126. Thirty-four days and a dimension or two.

Jackson escorted me into a quiet little office far from the buzz of the observatory's Tesla Coil, the kind of "lightning machine" that permed the hair of the Bride of Frankenstein in the old Universal flicks. She perched on a tabletop, with her legs folded under. I sat below, in a chair, like a pupil at the feet of the Dalai Lama.

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Jackson told me many things: that comets used to be called "bearded stars"; that her first name is 12th century Welsh for "hair black as a raven, skin white as a dove"; that she's an amateur astronomer--"star shine junkie" was the trade lingo--who knows her way around the heavens better than a lot of sky jockeys with sheepskins.

She's been hosting planetarium shows for two years, she said, the only female on the crew. The work is nice; she still thrills at the looks of awe-struck understanding on the faces of 10-year-old girls and middle-aged men as they grasp the size of a galaxy. She's exasperated that the current planetarium show meant to enlighten folks about the Hale-Bopp Comet and its brethren still hasn't stopped all the talk of an impending real-life invasion by octopus men from Neptune.

"It makes me want to beat my head against the wall," she moaned. "Frankly, if there are any aliens following along, little green men, I wish they would come by for tea so we could resolve this once and for all."

I agreed. Jackson gave me more of the lowdown on this fugitive Hale-Bopp character. It's huge. It makes Halley's look like a golf ball. At the same distance from Earth, it was a thousand times brighter than Halley's was.

Its nucleus is estimated at 20 miles across. It was last seen in 2200 BC and will not venture our way again until 4360. It is visible now, will remain plainly so through May, and will be closest to Earth on March 23 (123 million miles away).

It's traveling about one degree per day (two full moon widths), with an itinerary taking it across the constellation Cygnus (the swan, or "Northern Cross") in early March, Lacerta (the lizard) in mid-March and Andromeda (a mythical Greek character) at month's end. It was named after a couple of astronomers who discovered it simultaneously: Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp.

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