On this day 20 years ago, Comet Hale–Bopp was discovered independently by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp. Not much of a rock: roughly 40 miles across. It orbits the sun every 2,500 years in a plane that is almost perfectly perpendicular to the orbital plane of the major planets. But there are lots of comets making their way into our solar system. It isn’t the science that has made Comet Hale–Bopp famous.
The comet became very famous less than two years later when most of the membership of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves. There was supposedly a spacecraft following the comet and the members of the cult were going to get new bodies and relocate there. But clearly, this had nothing to do with Comet Hale-Bopp. They had all been searching for something for a long time and they were going to find it. It’s like what Lou Reed said, “You know, some people got no choice, and they can never find a voice, to talk with that they can even call their own. So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why they follow it. You know, it’s called bad luck.”
But happy anniversary Comet Hale-Bopp discovery!