The telephone number for the Halley's comet hotline at the Naval Observatory was listed incorrectly in Style Plus yesterday. The correct number is 653-0258.
When members of the Halley's Comet Society converge on London's Wembley Stadium tomorrow to celebrate Edmund Halley's birthday, they're likely to make more of a spectacle than will the heralded comet on its December return.
"The comet, I'm afraid, is not going to be spectacular at all," says British astronomer Patrick Moore, wearing a Comet Society tie and sounding more enthused about champagne toasts and the first public performance of "Halley's Comet March," which he penned for the occasion, than about the nearing celestial drama.
At 76, Moore was born the year the long-tailed orb last passed overhead -- a period when months of "comet fever" gripped most Earthlings. This time around, skygazing fever may turn quickly to frustration, anticipation to apathy.
"In 1910 . . . it was very brilliant," says Moore, president of the Astronomical Association and host for 29 years of BBC-TV's "The Sky at Night." "But this time, by a piece of bad cosmic timing, the Earth and the comet are in the wrong places at the wrong time. And so, when the comet should be at its best, in fact it is on the other side of the sun."
Proximity may also diminish the comet's curtain call: It will keep a distance of 40 million miles or more from Earth -- almost three times farther than the 1910 visit. When you add to that the glare of the sun, more artificial lights, city lights, automobile lights and more air pollution, the comet will probably appear no brighter than "a rather hazy star," says Moore. "No brighter than the faintest of the seven stars in the Big Dipper."
North Americans face another disadvantage. The comet is expected to make its closest descent on its way back into space -- when it inches through southern hemisphere skies. "Nowhere is really good this time around," says Moore, adding with a stiff upper lip, "But Washington is no worse than anywhere else."
Doubts about how much tail it will show are hardly more encouraging. Moore says the trail of dust and ice particles that can stretch for 100 million miles will appear to be small or nonexistent. Astronomer Richard Berendzen, president of American University, expects a tail of close to 12 degrees -- about the width of two hands held an arm's length away.
"Astronomers can predict an orbit of a comet like Halley's with uncanny accuracy," says Berendzen. "They can predict five loops from now, five-times-75 years into the future, almost to the day and hour. However, it is far harder to predict what it is going to look like. Nobody really quite knows."
To see the comet at its best, book tickets now to Australia or Peru for April. In Washington and elsewhere in North America, it should be visible to the naked eye in the southwest sky just after sunset through most of December and early January. It might reappear -- or it might not -- in late March and April on the south or southeast horizon an hour or two before sunrise, before it fades out of sight until the year until 2061.
"I don't want people to get super discouraged," says Berendzen, "because they will see it if they work at it a little . . . if they get outside the bright lights of the city."
Because of the comet's lackluster promise, Moore says it is important to know where to find it in the sky. "Star paths," he calls the constellations through which the comet will go -- "Taurus the Bull in November before it reaches naked-eye visibility, and then Pisces the Fishes in December, and into Aquarius the Water Bearer." Moore wrote the latest of his 60 books, Stargazing: Astronomy Without a Telescope (Barron's, $19.95), to help track the path, complete with glow-in-the-dark star charts.
To offset disappointment in the comet's scheduled performance, Moore and Berendzen recommend paying naked-eye attention to the best supporting roles. For new stargazers who are convinced astronomy is above their heads, here's what's also starring with Halley's Comet in the winter and spring skies:
*The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, is a star cluster near the constellation Taurus, one of the "splendid winter constellations," says Moore, that will host the comet's arrival in the southern sky for North Americans. At first glance, it will look like a misty patch; but when the sky is dark and crisp, seven individual stars are visible. Moore warns that bright moonlight or mist could hide all but one.
*The "orange star," Aldebaran, with a 0.8 magnitude (as in golf, the brightest stars have the lowest numbers), near the brilliant constellation Orion, is an easy mark in December's southeast sky.
*Pisces is a zodiacal constellation that is high in the southern sky in winter and the second constellation the comet will travel through, though possibly the first it will be visible in. While "nothing of interest," says Moore, Pisces' long chain of stars is just below the large Square of Pegasus -- another easy marker for size if not brilliance.
*In the late evenings of November and December, the Milky Way passes directly overhead, from northwest to southwest. It is an awesome sight on a clear, frosty night.
*The Big and Little Dippers practically own the January sky. A huge constellation of seven stars, the Big Dipper will be low in the north sky on late winter evenings, standing on its handle, with the Little Dipper above it. The second star from the end of the Big Dipper's handle is Mizar (2.1 magnitude), appearing almost to touch the fainter Alcor (4 magnitude), which ancient Arab astronomers used as an eyesight test. Test yourself on a clear, dark night.
*One of the year's largest meteor showers, the Geminids, will occur from Dec. 7 to 15. The smaller but radiant Ursids is expected from Dec. 17 to 24 in the Little Dipper. But the most spectacular shower of the year is the Quarantids, coming from the region of the Big Dipper the first week of January (maximum on Jan. 3), when Halley's Comet should still be visible in the southwest, late evening sky. "The fun part of meteor showers is the realization that much of what you see is debris from the tail of a comet," says Berendzen. "The comet basically is a frozen dirty snowball. Its tail is as close to being nothing as something can be."
*Although the bright planets will be out of view for the winter after October (this month Jupiter in the southern night sky and Venus in the east before dawn are unmistakable), the red planet Mars will appear in March and April.
*Seeing the aurora, or polar lights, is unlikely, but Moore says there is about "a 5 percent chance" of witnessing zodiacal lights that rise from the horizon -- if you're lucky and in the dark countryside. "It's a cone-shaped light rising after sunset and before dawn," says Moore, "due to thinly spread particles in the main plane of the solar system reflecting sunlight."
*And, says Moore, a new spectacular comet may outshine Halley's at any time. "Last time Halley's was around, two months before, along came a much brighter comet, the Daylight Comet. But it won't be back for a half million years, at least. Yet, during the last century, comets were quite common in the years 1811, 1843, 1858, 1861 twice, 1862, 1874, 1882 twice, 1886, 1889, 1901, 1910, and none really since then."
Adds Berendzen: "We think there are hundreds of billions of these things out beyond Pluto. And then, every now and then, a passing star bumps into one of these pristine, virginal comets . . . You don't know when they're coming."
For skygazers who don't know Kohoutek from high tech, Moore and Berendzen warn against buying expensive telescopic hardware to focus on Halley's Comet.
Moore says "good binoculars -- 7-by-50 or 10-by-50 -- are ideal," and advises specifically against "these wretched little 2- and 2 1/2-inch refractors and 3- and 4-inch reflectors" that can sell for several hundred dollars. "That's the last thing you want," says Moore. "You can do so much with the naked eye alone."
The Naval Observatory provides a Halley's hotline, 653-0285, for updated information on the comet's path. For other celestial sightseeing information year 'round, call 357-2000.