Scientists Reach Out to Comet
A rocket launched from White Sands hoisted a telescope into the sky Monday to give astronomers a look at Hale-Bopp's age, composition and origin
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE -- As close as Comet Hale-Bopp is to Earth observers, astronomers took an even closer look Monday night with the launch of a telescope-toting rocket.
A two-stage Black Brant rocket launched Monday night was expected to hurl its payload 175 to 240 miles above the Earth's surface, enabling astronomers to collect ultraviolet light that does not penetrate Earth's atmosphere and cannot be collected by ground telescopes.
The mission is expected to provide astronomers with clues about the age, composition and origin of the comet and provide some clues about the formation of the solar system.
"Comets in general are sort of a time machine going back to the beginning of the solar system," said Walter Harris, a University of Wisconsin astronomer in charge of the second of four scientific launches. "As comets go, I don't think we'll find anything better than this one."
Since Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered July 22, 1995, by astronomers in New Mexico and Arizona, astronomers have scrambled to take advantage of its relatively close brush with Earth to collect otherwise inaccessible data.
The series of rocket launches from White Sands Missile Range are designed to view Hale-Bopp as it passes 85 million miles from the sun, a few million miles closer than Earth's average orbit. Hale-Bopp, now trailing a huge hydrogen cloud millions of miles long, passes by Earth about once every 3,000 years.
"Comets like this don't come around so often, so we take advantage while we have the chance, as long as we have the technology," Stephan McCandliss, an astrophysicist with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said Monday as he helped prepare the launch.
Hale-Bopp, the largest comet ever studied by modern astronomers, was discovered on the same night by astronomer Alan Hale of Cloudcroft and Arizona amateur star-gazer Thomas Bopp.
Hale said he has been tickled to know that people around the world have been looking skyward to see a comet named partially after him. "I'm trying to get people to look at this and feel a little more connected to the universe, and generate a little excitement about science and science funding, both of which are in short supply," Hale said.
James Green, a professor in the University of Colorado's astrophysics department, said Monday's mission went off perfectly. He said a report of the results would available in about two months.
"The payload operated perfectly," Green said. "We got excellent data. The comet was brighter than expected, so we got even better data than expected."
The final two observation missions at White Sands Missile Range are scheduled for March 29 and April 5, and have been organized, respectively, by the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio and Johns Hopkins University. A second launch is scheduled for tonight from White Sands.
In Monday night's 8:15 p.m. launch east of the Organ Mountains, the 57-foot long rocket blasted into the New Mexico sky at a top speed of about 1.5 miles a second, NASA launch project manager Frank Lau said.
At the far reaches of its parabolic flight path, a telescope near the rocket's nose cone was trained on Hale-Bopp by ground crews in an attempt to detect the presence of the telltale chemical elements argon and neon, which have never before been detected in comets. The data was radioed instantaneously back to ground crews at the missile range.
Data collection in the roughly $1 million mission lasted about five minutes before the payload fell back to Earth, slowed by a parachute.
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