As Halley's Comet began its latest 76-year tour through far space, the U.S. Naval Observatory here ended its Comet Halley Hotline, which proved to be a hot attraction.
The "900" line, begun Dec. 15 and suspended for four weeks while the comet was out of sight behind the sun, received 160,357 calls before it was disconnected May 9, according to AT&T's Gail Azaroff. The messages, changed weekly, lasted four to five minutes and told callers where to look for the comet and touched on its history -- a famous picture of it is contained in the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, for example.
The callers were billed 50 cents for the first minute of listening and 35 cents for each additional minute.
The hot line was hooked up as callers with comet curiosity crowded the observatory's local taped-information line, which can handle a maximum of 300 calls a day.
The observatory originally planned to end service April 15, according to spokeswoman Gail Cleere, but its popularity kept it going until there was no chance of seeing the comet with anything smaller than a telescope.
What surprised both Cleere and Azaroff was the European response. "I got a letter from Trieste, Italy, thanking me for the hot line," Cleere said. Azaroff wasn't able to pinpoint areas, but said "calls came from international locations."
Use of the line peaked to as many as 37,000 calls a day when spacecraft neared the comet and when it came closest to the earth in mid-April.
Cleere wrote and produced each message and made the effort to set each to music. She went to the Library of Congress to find relevant sheet music and came up with selections that included the Comet Halley Rag and the Comet Halley March. Pianist Kim Grigsby, 17, the daughter of a friend, played the tunes.
Cleere said the observatory's local Halley information line -- 653-0258 -- will continue to give news of the comet until interest wanes. It now gets about 100 calls a day.