ANNAPOLIS – Hale-Bopp has proven the brightest comet to pass through the inner solar system since modern telescopes were invented.
Unfortunately, it displayed poor timing in being most visible hours before most people want to get out of bed.
But University of Maryland Astronomy Professor John Trasco planned a comet watch anyway. He arranged to meet on the roof of a campus parking garage several mornings in March — at 4 o’clock.
Still the question remained: Who would stand on the roof of a parking garage at that hour to star gaze? “I was kind of curious to see who’d show up myself,” Trasco said.
The answer: about 30 people ranging from a toddler to several senior citizens, all with their own reasons for coming.
“I’m here to worship the comet,” student Amy Sapherstein said with a perfectly straight face at the first comet watch on Tuesday.
Her friend Jose Amayo nodded solemnly. “She’s all about welcoming the comet,” he said dryly.
Amayo developed his own interest in things celestial through school. “Last semester, I took this astronomy class, mostly because this girl I liked was taking it,” he said.
At some point during the semester, Amayo actually found some genuine interest for the class.
So when his friend David Siegal came across a flyer for the comet watch, Amayo and Sapherstein agreed to sacrifice several hours of sleep to join.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” Sapherstein said.
Actually, a visit from Hale-Bopp occurs closer to once in 50 lifetimes. The comet, discovered in New Mexico two years ago by amateur astronomers, takes over 4,000 years to complete its trip around the sun.
It is 1,000 times brighter than Halley was at the same distance and will appear even more luminous when it reaches its closest point to the Earth on March 23.
Right now, Hale-Bopp can be seen with the naked eye in the eastern sky before dawn. It doesn’t streak across the horizon like the comets in the comics. Rather, it seems to hang there, a luminous white ball with only a hint of tail.
“This is really spectacular,” said Assistant Astronomy Professor John Wang.
Wang knew the night sky was relatively clear, but was relieved to see that no stray clouds were blocking the comet. “[Weathermen] can’t tell you that there won’t be a cloud right there at four in the morning,” he said.
Columbia resident Joe Spero, who works as a fireman near the College Park campus, moonlighted as an astronomer Tuesday morning.
“I like fire,” he said. “Fire in the sky, fire in the house — same difference.”
He said he finds it sad that so many people don’t take the time to look at their universe.
“I think it’s tragic in America that you have all these highly-educated people who never look up at the sky,” Spero said. “But they’ll spend $35 or $40 to see the Redskins. And they’re not stars!”
University Park resident Pam White and her two elementary school-aged sons Gareth and Chris left an alarm in the hall between their bedrooms so they could all get up to see the comet.
White said they were excited about coming, but the time made them hesitate. “It piqued our interest, but then we said, `Four o’clock in the morning?!?'” she said, shaking her head.
Gareth was groggy and cold. “I’d rather sleep than see a comet,” he said. Chris, however, said the experience was worth it, attributing his brother’s lack of enthusiasm to a cold.
White, for her part, enjoyed herself but said she could not wait to get back home for a cup of coffee. Two more comet watches are planned for Thursday, March 13 and Tuesday, March 18. For information, call 301-405-3001. -30-