Nepali Times
Star Gazing
Interview with a comet-hunter


Alan Hale, PhD, achieved worldwide recognition when Comet Hale-Bopp whooshed through the skies in the early months of 1997. But Hale's contributions are not limited to the co-discovery of the most widely-viewed comet in history. He has studied extensively the threat posed by near-Earth asteroids and the detecting of planets around other stars. Hale is an outspoken advocate of improved science education and is pushing for an expanded human presence in space. Hale, who was born in Tachikawa, Japan in 1958, is the author of the acclaimed book Everybody's Comet.

Nepali Times spoke with Hale about his wide-ranging career and how Nepal could develop astronomy education.

Nepali Times: How did you get into the field of astronomy? What inspired you to become an astronomer?
Alan Hale:
I first became interested in astronomy when I was about six years old. My father checked out some books on astronomy from the library and handed them to me, to see if I might be interested. Turns out, I was. This was in the mid-1960s, during the Apollo 'rush to the moon', and I became inspired me to study astronomy and space. Later I had the opportunity to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a contractor for the Deep Space Network [until 1986], and was involved in several space projects, most notably the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus. This reawakened my long-time desire to pursue a career as a scientist.

What was your most exciting moment in stargazing?
This would have to be discovering Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995 and then seeing it. Some other spectacular, memorable sights I've seen include other Great Comets-Bennet, West, and Hyakutake-and seeing Comet McNaught last month in the daytime was quite a treat. The six total solar eclipses I've seen, and the January 1992 annular eclipse that happened at sunset, rank high on my list of favourite sights. I witnessed the great Leonid meteor storm of 1966, and the 1998 Leonid shower, with its many bright fireballs, was also quite impressive.

What key issues in astronomy are you now engaged in?
Some of the things I'm interested in include the hunt for objects that might threaten Earth (i.e., comets and asteroids), and also the role these objects may have played in the formation of the planets-and what resources they might contain for future human use. I'm also rather interested in the 'transition' between comets and asteroids, and the relationship between these two types of objects.

The search for planets around other stars is now a heavy observational field. I haven't done too much work in this field in recent years, but hope to get back to it soon. I'm especially interested in planetary systems that might have habitable planets like Earth, and the conditions that might be necessary for life to develop on these worlds. I'm also interested in spaceflight, particularly in advancing commercial human spaceflight and eventually creating a spacefaring future for humanity.

The hunt for Earth-threatening objects, and the search for planets around other stars, are 'hot' items right now in astronomy. Other areas include the age and evolution of the universe, the nature of 'dark matter' and 'dark energy,' and the nature of gamma-ray bursts. There is also a lot of interest in spacecraft missions to the planets and other bodies of the solar system.

How can countries like Nepal get ahead in astronomy?
One doesn't need much in the way of expensive equipment to study the night time sky. If schools could be provided with binoculars and/or small telescopes, that would greatly help science education, and create interest in science amongst some of the students.

Science education would be greatly facilitated by access to remote telescopes and government investment in computers and internet technology so this equipment is available to as many students as is practical. Locating one or more such telescopes in Nepal (for example, working with private groups that are building networks of them) would further help.

Can astronomy be used to promote peace?
We all see the same sky at night, regardless of where we are on Earth, and this connects us all. Realising this, together with other things astronomy teaches us (like how small Earth actually is compared to the universe as a whole, and images of Earth taken from space) is a large step towards understanding that we're all in this together.

International collaboration, such as via the telescope networks, can help enormously to create environments where students from various nations can work together. Participating in international conferences and travelling to watch events like solar eclipses allows students to interact with people from other countries, and creates a solid foundation for communication and understanding.

Highlights in April
Venus continues its brilliant show in the western sky after sunset and is near the famous Pleiades star cluster from 10-12 April. Saturn is prominent and at its highest point between 8-9PM all month. The predawn scene will start to get lively, with Jupiter at its highest point each night before daybreak. The Moon meets Mars during the early morning hours on the 14 April. Also enjoy watching-through binoculars is best-the reddish Mars and faintly green Uranus in close conjunction on 30 April an hour before dawn. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks on 22 April.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)