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Star Attraction

Local groups will help public scan the skies for Hale-Bopp comet.


If you haven't seen the comet Hale-Bopp by now, don't worry--the best is yet to come. But don't wait too long. After this year's swing through our skies, it won't be back for more than 4,000 years.

You can find out for yourself what all the hullabaloo is about by taking a gander at the sky for the next month during prime viewing time. You won't need a telescope; your naked eye or binoculars will do just fine.

If you want more of a guided tour of the sky, you can take part in two astronomy nights at Malibu Creek State Park on Saturday and March 23 when telescopes will be focused on the comet. In Thousand Oaks, the Conejo Recreation and Park District has planned an evening program at Wildwood Park on April 12.

Or, you can hook up with the Ventura County Astronomical Society for its evening "star party" at the Moorpark College Observatory on March 23.

Astronomers are already giddy over Hale-Bopp, having charted its progress since it was discovered July 23, 1995, almost simultaneously by professional astronomer Alan Hale and amateur Thomas Bopp.

As it approaches the sun, the comet--really a huge dirty snowball made mostly of ice, rock and dust--has become more visible in recent weeks.

"It gets brighter every day," said Hal Jandorf, president of the Ventura County Astronomical Society and an astronomy teacher at Moorpark College. "You can find it with your naked eye, and with binoculars it knocks your socks off."

Jandorf and other astronomy buffs have been getting up between 4 and 5 a.m. to see the comet, which looks like a fuzzy star with a tail, low in the eastern sky. If rolling out of bed at dawn isn't your cup of tea, you can now see it just after sunset very low in the northwestern sky.

Prime time, according to Jandorf, is just after sunset March 20 through April 10 when the comet is higher in the sky and the moon's brilliance isn't interfering. Provided skies are clear, you probably can view it from one to two hours.

When Jandorf's organization holds its star party March 23, sky gazers are in for a double feature: a near-total lunar eclipse as well as the comet. The eclipse starts about 7 p.m. and is midway about 8:40 p.m. With the moon out of the way, the sky will darken considerably, making it easier to see the comet.

If you come--and as many as 500 are expected--bring binoculars, which are preferred by some over a telescope because you can see the entire comet. The star party is free, but $1 donations will be requested.

You can find out more about the comet March 21, when Don Yeomans, a scientist and comet expert from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, speaks at Moorpark College in the Music Building at the north end of the campus off the 118 Freeway, beginning at 7:30 p.m. This is a free event.

On March 22, astronomers can pick up tips on how to photograph the comet and other celestial bodies during a seminar at the college's forum from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $25.

Hale-Bopp will still be visible April 12 when the Ventura County Astronomical Society hosts its National Astronomy Day. Displays--including the making of miniature comets out of dry ice and other stuff--will be set up from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Sycamore Plaza in Simi Valley.

This free event drew 1,200 people last year. That evening the organization will host another star party at the Moorpark College Observatory from 7 to 10 p.m.

Because the comet is so bright, it isn't essential to find a dark, secluded spot for viewing. But if you want to get away from urban lights for a better view, you can join the Malibu Creek Docents for an astronomy outing Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m., or March 23 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Malibu Creek State Park. Telescopes will be provided for this free event, which meets at the campground theater.

At Thousand Oaks' Wildwood Park, the astronomy outing April 12 runs from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Preregistration is required for this event, which costs $3 per person ($3.60 for those outside the district). Participants should bring their own viewing equipment.


Ventura County--For information about the Astronomical Society's events March 21-23 at Moorpark College and National Astronomy Day on April 12 in Simi Valley, call 529-7813. To register for the Conejo Recreation and Park District's April 12 program, call 495-2163.

Los Angeles County--For information about the Malibu Creek Docent's astronomy nights in Malibu Creek State Park, call (818) 889-6238.

Griffith Observatory--For updates call (213) 663-8171.

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