IT was 25 years ago today that Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered by two American astronomers almost simultaneously. On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp were in New Mexico and Arizona respectively when they both made the chance discovery of an unknown celestial object.

Both men were keen on studying space and they knew that to register their find they had to contact the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. Staff there were astounded by the simultaneous contacts which showed there was just minutes between the two observations.

In the circumstances the International Astronomical Union, which has the responsibility for designating comets, decided to name the “new” comet Hale-Bopp.

It would go on to become the brightest comet seen in the night sky for decades and would break all records for longevity as it remained visible to the naked eye for 18 months.

Sadly it would also be associated with tragedy as the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide of 39 people was triggered by Comet Hale-Bopp.


ALAN Hale was born in 1958 in Japan as his father was serving in the US Air Force at the time. He grew up to be obsessed with

space exploration, crediting the original Star Trek as a major influence. He served for seven years in the US Navy, took degrees in physics and astronomy and set up the South West Space Research Institute, later the Earthrise Institute, in 1992. With a job and a family he had less and less time to try and find comets, and by 1992 he had almost stopped his hobby of following comets. Three years later he resumed his hobby and struck astronomical gold.

Thomas Bopp, who was born in 1949 in Denver, Colorado, was strictly an amateur astronomer, but a skilled one. With a degree in business administration, he worked in the parts department of a construction company but his hobby was astronomy and on moving to Phoenix, Arizona, he joined the North Phoenix Alternative Astronomical Society.


HALE explained recently: “I had plans to observe the two comets

I was then following, but while taking a break between them I decided to look at some deep-sky objects, and when I turned my telescope towards the globular star cluster M70 in Sagittarius shortly after midnight I noticed a diffuse 11th-magnitude object in the same field of view.

“Over the course of the next 40 minutes I could tell that this object was moving against the background stars.”

In the neighbouring state of Arizona, Bopp had joined one of

his club’s regular outings to a desert area where there was no light interference from towns or cities.

Bopp was using his friend Jim Stevens’s 17.5-inch reflecting telescope to vie the M70 star cluster when he spotted a fuzzy object. He actually did so ahead of Hale, but not by long.

Bopp called over Stevens, who proved to have a genius for understatement by saying “You might have something there, Tom.”

Like Hale, Bopp watched the object for an hour, while his fellow club members consulted star charts to find any reference to the “new” object. There weren’t any and Bopp’s first conclusion was that he had spotted a new galaxy before the object’s movement convinced him it was a comet.


HAVING registered their claims and seen the officially designated Comet C/1995-01 renamed Hale-Bopp – Hale had sent in an e-mail first while Bopp sent a telegram which arrived later, hence the precedence of Hale – both men were introduced as the co-discoverers of the comet.

Just about every telescope in the northern hemisphere, where the comet was most visible, was turned on the distant object which stunned astronomers and astrophysicists with its brightness even many millions of miles away.

It was discovered to have originated in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune and it was not strictly new as its orbit of the Sun showed that Comet Hale-Bopp last visited Earth’s night sky some 2300 years ago, though there are no records of it doing so.

The comet proved to be massive – Nasa’s Hubble Telescope found it to be more than 20 miles in diameter – and its “tail” was tens of thousands of miles long. It became visible to the naked eye in March, 1996, and remained so for 18 months, a record for any comet.

It became the most-viewed comet in history and scientists were able to greatly advance our knowledge of comets thanks to Hale-Bopp.


BY March 1997, Marshall Applewhite, a former music professor, had convinced members of the Heaven’s Gate cult he had founded to believe that their bodies were simply vessels that could be abandoned in favour of a higher existence.

Applewhite taught that an alien spacecraft was following Hale-Bopp and that it was a cosmic emissary to take them to another world. Later that month he and 38 followers drank Phenobarbital and vodka, killing themselves in batches over three days. The bodies of 21 women and 18 men, all identically dressed, were found lying in bunk beds in a mansion just outside San Diego, California.


Thomas Bopp quit his job to become a full-time educator about astronomy. He sadly died two years ago but Alan Hale is still president of the Earthrise Institute and is currently maintaining a website on which he is writing about the comet.

Scientists have computed that Comet Hale-Bopp will return around the year 4385.