For weeks Comet Hale-Bopp has soared silently overhead - a burst of celestial fireworks delighting the eyes and engaging the minds of Earthlings.
Utahns have responded with awe and art. Hale-Bopp's beauty has inspired poems, photos, musings, drawings and even jewelry. Countless residents have been turned on to astronomy by the lovely visitor. Telescope sales are soaring."Normally we sell about two scopes a month per store - we have six stores," said Bruce Hammond of Hammond's Hobby & Toy stores. But with the advent of Hale-Bopp, he said, "We're selling that many a day. They all just want to see the comet."
Sales are up for all varieties of telescopes, from models that cost $9 to those jolting the bank account at $4,000. Another item in great demand is the free Comet Hale-Bopp pamphlet wisely printed by telescope-maker Celestron International. "I can't keep those on the shelf," he said.
Hansen Planetarium's Jayceen Craven-Nicholson also has witnessed the boom in interest in all things astronomical. "Our comet show, `From Out of the Darkness,' has been basically sold out for the last two weeks," she said.
At star parties sponsored by the planetarium and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, observers are excited about the comet's beauty, she said. With some viewers, she said, "we piqued their interest enough that they would be willing to drive out west, so they could see the two different tails, the ion tail and the dust tail."
The great comet of 1997 has twin tails of differing brightness. The dusty material blowing off the comet in the solar wind is a bright yellowish hue in color photos, while the gas tail, called the ion tail, is thinner and dimmer and blue. The dust tail is bright enough to see from a city, but dark skies are preferable for seeing the ion tail.
"Hale-Bopp has a beautiful, wide, curved dust tail, and then the straight blue ion tail," said Dr. Keith N. Finlayson, a Salt Lake physician who has taken many great photographs of it and other comets.
Through the telescope, he said, "it's got a very prominent nucleus. There's a lot of layered coma around it."
The concentric semicircles that make up the "layered look" are like bow waves bouncing off the nucleus. Possibly they actually are formed by jets of ice, dust and gasses spraying away from a particular part of the nucleus as it rotates.
Last year's spectacular comet, Hyakutake, also had the "layers" to some extent, "but Hyakutake was such a small comet," he said. With Hale-Bopp, the layering is much more prominent. "It's beautiful," he said.
When Finlayson is watching a comet, sometimes he is struck by the fact that it is mostly ice - frozen water, an essential for life on Earth. Other planets, like Mars, Venus or Jupiter, are largely waterless.
"Here we have probably the main other place in the solar system where there is water from this primordial material that made the solar system . . . 4.5 billion years ago," he said. In that way, a comet is more "Earth-like" than our neighboring planets.
Craven-Nicholson points out that expensive telescopes aren't needed to enjoy Hale-Bopp. People can stand on their front or back steps and peer at it, high in the northwest after sunset. Inexpensive binoculars give a great view, and so, for that matter, does the naked eye.
"It's astronomy for the common man," she said.
Not only are Utahns anxious to learn about the origin of comets but they also wonder about the danger that this one might strike our world. Answers to those questions are: Comets probably originate in a great swarm of primordial material called the Oort Cloud, out at the fringes of the solar system; this one can't strike Earth, at least not until it comes back in 4,000 years, but if a big comet like it did happen to hit, that would cause incalculable destruction.
Visitors to the planetarium are "curious about the doomsday effect," and some asked about the UFO that supposedly accompanies Hale-Bopp, she said. For the record, doomsday cultists to the contrary, nobody has seen a UFO with the comet; the "spaceship" supposedly spotted in an amateur astronomer's photo turned out to be a star.
Hale-Bopp is so bright that on clear days it is one of the first celestial objects to appear at sunset. Its brilliance is especially impressive in light of the fact that it's about 85 million miles from Earth, versus 22 million for Hyakutake's closest approach, Craven-Nicholson said.
Despite all the facts and figures, for many it is the beauty and mystery of the comet that hits most strongly. The fact that great comets are rare adds to their appreciation. You just want to stand there gazing upward, soaking in that fabulous pearly air-hook.
As Darla Petersen, Salt Lake City, wrote last month in a poem she calls "Halley's Cousin Hale-Bopp":
A phenomenon only experienced
Once in a lifetime, so I'm told.
The next to come when I am
Either gone or very old;
A comet with a tail that seems
Much greater than itself.
A memory for me to place
Upon my data-keeping shelf.
And with my two own eyes
I witnessed this great sight;
While gazing in the starry sky
On a bright and wondrous night.
Then again, in early morn
I watched it get real dim . . .
Until the light of dawn
Gently grasped it and swallowed it in.
The comet Hale-Bopp in terza rima
You're the witch of the starry vestry,
Distant silence in a haze of wonder,
Witch of my deep night country.
The way of the night is to ponder.
We're over the age of explaining
Why the way of the comet is to wander.
Hear a river in a long valley flowing,
Where stars flare and spring passes by,
Eternity lies in your far-off passing.
Gene & Melle Washington
Haiku on Hale-Bopp
Name sounds like tennis
That white ball among sharp stars
Children watching wow.
Salt Lake City