Mars is in full view and so is the Orion Nebula, but stargazers threw a party for the Comet Hale-Bopp, which has returned to the Earth’s skies like a prodigal son.
An estimated 500 to 600 people lined up to view the comet in the night sky on the West Sunset Highway Friday night.
With the help of the Spokane Astronomical Society, stargazers bundled up to stand in line for an hour and a half in some cases to view Hale-Bopp. It was last seen from Earth 4,000 years ago.
Ginger and Dick Collins and their pet papillon, Darby, stood in line for an hour to view Hale-Bopp for less than five minutes.
They weren’t disappointed.
“The last people that looked at this comet were building the ancient pyramids in Africa,” said Ginger Collins of Spokane. “It will be generations before it will be seen again. I think it’s my astronomical obligation to see this.”
The Collins and hundreds of others can thank astronomical society club president Dan Bakken for an extraordinary view of Hale-Bopp.
Bakken is the maker of Hercules. It is the telescope observers stood in line to view the comet through.
“Objects through this telescope are 140-times larger than they appear to the naked eye,” said Bakken, an astronomer of 20 years.
Hercules was the most powerful of 12 telescopes that were set up at the parking lot of Group Health Northwest at 5615 W. Sunset Highway. Stargazers were in the parking lot until midnight.
“We’ve been watching the comet all week from home when it isn’t cloudy,” said Milli McGertrick of herself and Pat Wilson, a fellow amateur astronomer.
“I love to watch the stars,” Wilson said, “but this comet is just spectacular.”
People of all ages are watching Hale-Bopp sail across the northwestern sky as it leaves what looks like a vapor trail 20-million miles long.
Katie Moreau, 11, couldn’t contain her enthusiasm Friday night.
“Up to now, the most spectacular sight I’ve ever seen through a telescope was the Horsehead Nebula a couple of years ago,” Moreau said. “But I have to admit that Hale-Bopp looks even better than that.”
“This is by far the best comet I’ve ever seen,” Bakken said. “I can’t believe the tail (of the comet) is so clear. I’ve never been able to see the tail of any comet because the lights of the city interfere with the view.”
Hale-Bopp is 120-million miles from the Earth. That’s equal to close to five-million trips around our own planet.
Bakken said Hale-Bopp will start to be lost to the naked eye by the end of April. At that point it will speed away in the direction of the western horizon during sunset.
And maybe then the other heavenly bodies will start to get some more attention.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo