Fans rise, Hale-Bopp shines Comet: Although their star guest hid at times, observers said glimpses of Hale-Bopp was an awakening experience worth the 4 a.m. wake-up call.

March 14, 1997|By Cheryl L. Tan | Cheryl L. Tan,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Comet Hale-Bopp played celestial hide-and-seek early yesterday, teasing an audience of 50 who showed up at 4 a.m. in College Park to catch a glimpse of one of the brightest comets in centuries.

Instead of burning gloriously in the sky, the comet remained hidden by clouds for half the time, flashing now and then. But the eager watchers were undeterred.

"There's a certain bizarre romance to getting up at 4 in the morning and seeing this," said John Trasco, associate director of the University of Maryland astronomy department, who organized the event. "And it is gratifying. This is the first comet in decades that you can look at and say, 'Oh yeah, that's a comet,' rather than with other comets like Halley where the typical reaction was, 'Oh, it's that fuzz ball?' "

The group of students, faculty and local residents had gathered on the roof of a University of Maryland parking garage to catch the comet with the school's astronomy department. The event was one of several the department is organizing for the public.

It also was one of many that will take place in the Baltimore metropolitan area during the remaining few weeks that LTC Hale-Bopp will appear here. Early morning is the best time to see it now, but the comet also is visible at night. Hale-Bopp, which can be viewed with the naked eye, will be brightest from late this month to early next month.

The people on the roof yesterday clustered around four telescopes, shuffling about in 37-degree weather on the cold concrete, staring open-mouthed at the sky and speaking in whispers. But mostly, they were waiting for the brief minutes when the clouds would shift and Hale-Bopp would appear.

Jerald Bernstein, 63, chief of a hospital laboratory, said the event was the inauguration for a telescope his wife gave him as an early birthday present. Bernstein of Washington said he was thrilled to be seeing the comet at such an unusual time.

"It's more romantic to come out at this time," he said. "Everyone else is still asleep."

Romance of a different kind drew Ian Mendelson, 21, to the roof.

"Next time I go to a bar, I can use this as a conversation piece," said Mendelson, a University of Maryland senior. "I can tell a girl, 'Hey, baby, I saw the comet,' and she'll be like, 'I'm going home with you!' "

Mendelson and his friend Ed Hinkle went to the roof because they were up all night finishing a logistics presentation that was due yesterday. They had expected Hale-Bopp to provide a triumphant finale to a night of slogging at the computer and making frantic trips to Kinko's. But the clouds were frustrating.

"Just my luck," said Hinkle, 22, also a senior. "But I saw the comet; I'm happy."

Tom Creegan, 57, also was disappointed with the cloudy sky. But the Takoma Park nurse practitioner said he was glad he dragged his daughter, Colleen, and her best friend, Jessica Moore, to the event.

"When something comes from so far away to visit, you go," Creegan said. "I'm also trying to show them that life is exciting, and sometimes you have to get up at 4 in the morning to meet it."

Colleen and Jessica, both 13, were happy to have something interesting to tell their friends in school. Colleen said it would make up for having to sit through science and English yesterday on so little sleep -- her father was not letting her stay home from school.

Daniel Botts, 42, a Washington firefighter, made sure he had the day off before he made the early morning pilgrimage to College Park. Standing apart from the rooftop crowd with his arms folded, Botts was quiet and thoughtful as he squinted at the sky.

"It helps me to universalize my mind and realize that things we focus on that seem a big deal, like wars and all that other stuff, that's trivial when you think about this," he said.

Being on that roof was inspirational in other ways as well. As the first streaks of sunrise dimmed the comet's light and Bernstein was savoring his last glimpses of Hale-Bopp for the day, he said the event gave him a positive feeling about the future.

"When you get older, you get jaded, and you think they don't build kids like they used to -- that they're uncultured and ignorant," he said.

"But then you see these kids getting up at 4 in the morning and standing on a rooftop to see a comet, it's wonderful, isn't it? You just think, 'This is where our future really is.' "

Where to see comet

University of Maryland at College Park: March 18, 25, 31; April 7, 8. Call 301-405-0355.

Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.: March 23. Call 410-545-5918.

Johns Hopkins University Observatory, 3400 N. Charles St.: March 24-28. Call 410-516-6525.

Goddard Space Flight Visitor Center (Greenbelt): March 29, April 4. Call 301-286-8981.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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