THE VIEW FROM 400
by Alan Hale
|A lot has happened since that long-ago night (February 2, 1970) 37 years ago when I made my first observation of Comet Tago-Sato-Kosaka 1969g. At that time I was 11 years old, in 6th grade (elementary school), and I had had my first telescope (a 4 1/2-inch (11.4 cm) reflector from Sears that my father had purchased after I had been incessantly bugging him about it for a year) for just a little over two weeks. This was only a few months after the Apollo 11 and 12 missions, and I had been caught up in the whole Apollo "rush to the moon" business, and was envisioning some sort of career in space. For a variety of reasons, some personal, some societal, things didn't entirely work out that way, but things have nevertheless been close enough that I'm not going to complain. My bio page describes in some detail the twists and turns my career has taken along the way.
So, here I am, 48 years old (hard to believe, actually), and it's certainly been an interesting ride so far. After a few detours, I managed to earn my doctorate in Astronomy 15 years ago. I've been married for 21 years, and have two sons: I watched my older one (Zachary) graduate from high school two years ago, and now, at age 20, he's a sophomore in college; my younger son (Tyler) is now 14 and a freshman in high school. I've had the privilege of traveling to several fascinating places around this planet of ours -- some of these endeavors are described elsewhere on this web site -- and I've been able to participate in a lot of incredible activities and adventures.
It hasn't all been good, of course. It occurs to me that, of the five people who were with me that night when I saw my first comet, only two of them are still here. My grandmother passed away in 1973, and my father in 2002; my best friend at the time, Mark Bakke, a budding amateur astronomer like me who was every bit as enthusiastic as I was about seeing that comet, died tragically and accidentally in 1984 at the age of 27. Meanwhile, my mother and older brother are, I'm happy to say, very much alive and active.
The comets, definitely, have been very interesting, and I've been privileged to have seen many interesting and fascinating ones. The highlight, of course, was the comet that bears my name, Hale-Bopp, which passed perihelion ten years ago (has it been that long already?), made my life very interesting for a while, and opened up a lot of doors for me. There have been other "Great Comets," i.e., Bennett that came along less than two months after Tago-Sato-Kosaka; West in 1976, during my senior year of high school (I actually observed it the night I graduated); Hyakutake, which dazzled us all a year before Hale-Bopp was brightest; and the very recent Comet McNaught which, while perhaps not a "Great" comet as seen from my latitude, was nevertheless bright enough to observe during the daytime. There have also been comets like IRAS-Araki-Alcock, which passed extremely close to Earth in 1983; P/Halley during its return in 1985-86 (during the period of its visibility I got married, participated in the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus, left my job at JPL and moved from California back to New Mexico, entered graduate school, and became a father); the "Perseid" comet, P/Swift-Tuttle, in 1992 (a few months after Tyler was born and I had finished graduate school); P/Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in July 1994; the "Leonid" comet, P/Tempel-Tuttle, which returned in early 1998 as I was coming down off the Hale-Bopp "high"; and P/Ikeya-Zhang in early 2002, which gave us a connection to the astronomers of the late 17th Century, and which was shining at its brightest when my father passed away.
There have also been many much dimmer, and much less interesting, comets that I've seen over the years, but I'm happy to have seen each of them. For those who are interested I've done a bit of a statistical analysis of all 400 comets I've observed.
And now, of course, begins the quest for the next hundred comets. I can already make some educated speculations as to what some of them will be, based upon the periodic comets that will be returning over the next few years as well as some of the recently discovered long-period ones. There will certainly be some surprises, and I hope that we have a few fairly bright comets, perhaps even a "Great" one or two, along the way. For anyone reading this, by all means feel free to make some discoveries of your own to contribute to the total (understanding that that is unlikely, considering all the discoveries being made by comprehensive surveys these days; still, I can think of some individuals whose names I wouldn't mind seeing). It's doubtful we'll see the name "Hale" again, although one never knows for sure . . .
Meanwhile, life will go on as well. Over these next few years I should hopefully see one more high-school graduation, and one or two college graduations, from my sons, and while I would like to think that it's still a bit early for this, I suppose the possibility of grandchildren isn't entirely out of the question. There should be some more travels and adventures, and other interesting experiences I'll have. There will probably be some sad events, too, which I won't speculate about here but which are a part of life. During these next few years I will be doing everything I can to make the Earthrise vision that's described on this web site a reality, and by the time I reach comet number 500 it is my full intention that we'll be there, and perhaps doing our part to create a peaceful planet and a positive future for humanity. In any event, as I progress through to comet 500 I'll share these various events of my life with you, as you in turn observe these comets with me.
And to answer a question you might be thinking of asking: no, I don't necessarily plan to stop when I reach comet number 500, although I suspect I may begin slowing down at some point. Even so, there are a couple of small comets making very close approaches to Earth during the mid-2010s that I think would be worth seeing, and there are two Halley-type periodic comets (12P/Pon-Brooks and 13P/Olbers) that returned just before I was born and that are returning again to perihelion within a few months of each other in 2024. I have no idea if I'll live long enough and remain active long enough to ever get to comet number 1000, but it so happens that I would be 103 when P/Halley returns again in 2061 . . . We shall see.
Cloudcroft, New Mexico USA
March 1, 2007
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