The controversy surrounding amateur astronomer
photograph of a "Saturn-Like" companion object near Comet Hale-Bopp has
reached a fever pitch, and the temperature just keeps rising. Somehow,
based on a dubious CCD photo of Hale-Bopp's supposed
companion, various individuals have discovered that not only is the
object real, it is actually a space probe on its way to rendezvous with
Earth. Not to worry though -- Pope John Paul II has the object under
close surveillance from a command console at the Vatican with a direct
uplink to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Or so the story goes
People are freaked out, obviously. Hey, the new millennium is almost
here, and at forty-five degrees, the sky will burn. That's what
Nostradamus said in quatrain VI-97, right? Hale-Bopp
will hit its
perihelion in April '97 in the Northern sky at 45 degrees geographic
latitude. And it'll be making the rounds in our part of the solar system
around the same time Nostradamus scheduled
Wormwood for a special guest
appearance in the Apocalypse. An ominous coincidence, certainly.
But humans have always seen comets as much more than just a coma and a
nucleus. In ancient times people saw meteors as precursors to joyous
occasions. But whenever Haley's swung through the cosmic neighborhood,
folks thought it was a fireball flung by a vengeful God to scare the
Saturn-like objects out of a wicked world. "Hey, this is GOD!!! You hear
me down there? That was just a WARNING SHOT!!! Tighten up or I'll do
worse than drown you this time!"
Humans are humans; the same passion and curiosity that enables us to
progress sometimes leads us to read a bit too much into spectacular
events. Sometimes -- certainly not in JFK's case, but sometimes -- a
magic bullet is just a magic bullet.
So it was with great interest that we here at ParaScope central command
received the results of correspondent Alfredo Garcia's analysis of
Shramek's Hale-Bopp CCD photograph. "When I first saw the image I had no
doubt -- repeat, no doubt whatsoever -- as to the [Saturn-Like Object's]
origin," said Garcia, an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer with
more than three decades of experience. "Simply the image of a star with
diffraction patterns, a common phenomenon in astrophotographs or CCD
Garcia downloaded a copy of Shramek's SLO photo from ParaScope and
transposed the image on a starmap
using the star atlas software GUIDE v.
5.0. He set the time and date at approximately 1800 PST on 14 November
1996, and found that the Saturn-Like Object matched up perfectly with
star SAO 141894.
Garcia's findings verify earlier analysis by Russell Sipe of the
Hale-Bopp Web Site, who concluded that the SLO was actually
after comparing the photograph to a starmap using the star atlas
software The Sky 4.0. Sipe also concluded that the Saturn-like rings
shown in the Shramek photograph are the result of image diffraction due
to his camera's charge-coupled device.
Sipe believes Shramek fell victim to a quirk in MegaStar, the software
he used to generate the starmap which failed to show SAO 141894. "I
called the designer of the program on the afternoon of [November] 17th
to try and find out what was going on," Sipe said. "It turns out that an
improper setting on any one of three user-defined parameters could have
created the problem."
Sipe was able to replicate the probable cause of Shramek's error using
his own copy of MegaStar. When he ran the program with star magnitude
limit of 7, the label for SAO 141894 showed up, but not the star.
Shramek, in all likelihood, simply used an improper magnitude setting
with the labels option turned off. No space probes, no secret Hubble
space surveillance terminals at the Vatican. Just a comet and some
"This makes it pretty clear to me that the
SLO was nothing more than a
gross misrepresentation or misinterpretation of the image," Garcia said.
"I would have wished nothing more than for it to be a UFO or some other
phenomena, but alas, as you can see, the stars don't lie!"
Which leaves us with one spectacular heavenly object hurtling towards
Mother Earth. Is it a sign of the End Times? I guess we'll find out
soon. In the meantime, let's just enjoy the view.