Of all the comets in the sky
There's none like Comet Halley.
We'll see it with the naked eye
STARGAZING is a pastime of the past for most city dwellers. But it may come back into vogue over the next few months. Even young comet hunters will be able to catch a glimpse of Halley's Comet, if they use binoculars and get far enough away from city lights.
Seeing Halley is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The most celebrated comet in history, Halley (rhymes with Sally) has reappeared every 75 to 76 years since the first recorded sighting (perhaps 1057 B.C. and certainly 240 B.C.). If would-be astronomers miss it this time, they'll have to wait until 2061.
To assist young comet hunters in their quest, the Washington area offers an array of programs, from planetarium shows to exhibitions, which explain the comet's history and how to look for it in the night sky. (A sampling of those programs appears below.)
Comet Halley's dazzling 1910 apparition -- blazing across the night sky with its tail sweeping behind -- was a worldwide event involving scientists, soothsayers and fortune hunters.
Halley won't be nearly so dazzling this time around, because we're on the far side of the sun from it, millions of miles farther away. But don't think that the old fellow's losing his sizzle: Only about a thousandth of the comet's substance boils away on each visit, so it'll be milleniums before any loss will be noticeable, assuming somebody's still around to notice.
But for scientists, it's still an exciting event that could offer clues to the origin of the universe. And for the amateur of any age, the visit offers a chance to partake in the centuries-old phenomenon of cot hunting.
The comet is named after 17th-century English astronomer Edmond Halley, who concluded that the bright "bearded stars" which appeared in the sky every 75 to 76 years were in fact the same comet. (The reason, of course, is the comet's elliptical orbit which takes it out beyond Neptune.)
Throughout history, Halley's has been seen as a harbinger of disaster. (The word "dis- aster" has a Latin root meaning evil star.)
The source of endless fascination, it was said to have foretold plagues and wars, the births and deaths of rulers and famous men, and even the end of the world. Aztec ruler Montezuma misread the long-haired star's omen in 1519, subsequently losing his empire to Cortes. Mark Twain, who was born during Halley's 1835 appearance, was convinced he would die when the comet reappeared in 1910 -- and he did.
In light of the magical properties attributed to it over the centuries, it's worth remembering that Halley is now understood to be a "dirty snowball," or chunk of ice and dust. It can be thought of as a bit of the raw material of the 4.6-billion-year-old solar system. As the comet nears the earth, solar winds sweep back the gases in its nucleus to form its flowing coma or tail.
But despite its distinctive appearance, Halley won't be that easy for youngsters to pick out of the night sky. Area experts recommend first boning up on the constellations (several of the planetarium shows offer tips on looking at the night sky). And they insist that comet hunters must get out of town.
"Anyone who tries to look at the comet from inside the city is essentially doomed," says Geoff Chester, production coordinator for the Air and Space Museum's planetarium and an avid astronomy buff. That's a polite way of saying that the glare of city lights will make it virtually impossible to see.
For best viewing, Chester recommmends driving 60 miles west or south of the city -- toward the Shenandoah Mountains or Charles County, Maryland, for eample. Go on a clear, moonless night in the middle part of this month or early or mid December, he advises.
Plan to arrive at your site around 9, allowing 15 or 20 minutes to adjust your eyes to the darkness. Look high in the Southern sky for the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters). Not to be confused with the Little Dipper, the Pleiades are a distinctive little "net" of stars clumped together. Then, look just south of the Pleiades for Comet Halley. Around the weekend of November 16, it should appear as a smallish fuzzy ball of light.
A good pair of binoculars (7x50 or 7x35) are all that's required, say the experts, and may even be easier to look through than the array of "Halley-scopes" and "comet-scopes" now on the market.
"By January," says Dr. Michael A'Hearn, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, "you shouldn't need to know your constellations. You'll be able to look west and see something bright enough and big enough that is obviously different."
The comet will disappear from view during February, when it goes behind the sun, and then be visible again in March and April just before dawn, low in the southern sky. BONING UP FOR COMET HALLEY
Here are some Washington-area comet activities to prime young astronomers (ages seven or eight and up) before they train their binoculars on the night sky.
HALLEY'S HOTLINE -- 653-0258. Produced by the Naval Observatory, the hotline offers up-to-the-minute information geared to Washington, D.C., comet hunters. How bright the comet is, where can it be seen in the night sky, etc.
ARLINGTON PLANETARIUM -- 1426 North Quincy Street, Arlington. "A Comet Called Halley" will be shown Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 7 and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 and 3 p.m. through November 24. Admission is $1 per person. Reservations are recommended for the live 45-minute show (call 558-2868). To get there, take I-66 west to Glebe Road. Turn left and leftagain onto Washington Boulevard, and left once more at the second traffic light onto North Quincy. The planetarium is a block down on the left, just past Washington-Lee High School.
NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM -- Albert Einstein Planetarium, 6th Street and Independence Ave. SW. Planetarium entrance is on the second floor. "Comet Quest," a 30-minute show, runs Saturdays and Sundays continuously from 10:50 a.m. to 4:50 p.m. Tickets are $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for children and students. Also at the Air and Space Museum is an exhibit, "Fire and Ice: A History of Comets in Art."
On December 6, another exhibit, "Exploring Comets," opens at Air and Space. It will focus on how to seek, find and name a comet, and offer the latest news and images of Halley from space missions sent to intercept it. Also that day, the museum puts on a "Once-in-a-Lifetime Party" from 5 to 10 p.m. with telescope demonstrations and a lecture by Carl Sagan. Free. For information: 357-2700.
ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER PLANETARIUM -- 5200 Glover Rd NW. A live 45-minute show -- "Omens or Dirty Snowballs?" -- will be shown Saturdays and Sundays at 4 through November and December. The slide presentation will be followed by an introduction to the night sky with tips on where and when to look for Halley's Comet. 426-6829. Free.
HOWARD B. OWENS SCIENCE CENTER PLANETARIUM -- 9601 Greenbelt Road. "A Comet Called Halley" will be shown Fridays at 7 through November 22. Admission to the 45-minute show is $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for students. It is followed by a 15-minute exploration and display of the current night sky. 577-8780. To get there, take the Capital Beltway to exit 22-A. Go east on Greenbelt Road for about two miles. The planetarium, operated by Prince George's County public schools, is on the right.
COMET READING -- It's hard to find well-written books on comets for younger children. Two recent books for five- to nine-year-olds are: "Comets," by Franklyn M. Branley, Thomas Y. Crowell, publishers, 1984, $11.50; and "The Comet and You," by E.C. Krupp, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1985, $12.95.
Available in the Air and Space Museum's gift shops are a number of books on Halley's Comet and on comets in general. Geared toward younger readers is "Mr. Halley's Comet," a 32-page booklet for $2.
The Naval Observatory has put out a booklet aimed at Washington-area observers, "A Magnificent Old Conflagration." It's available for $1.25 from any Government Printing Office retail outlet or can be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. (Order number 008-054-00121-1.)