Colorado meteor may have been part of Hale-Bopp

By Joseph B. Verrengia
Rocky Mountain News Science Writer

Sunday's meteor may have been a stray chunk of the comet Hale-Bopp burning through Earth's atmosphere before plunging into Colorado's Plains.

"Only the smoking rock can resolve the matter,'' University of Denver astronomer Robert Stencel said.

He has calculated the orbit of the comet around the sun in relation to Earth's orbit, as well as having traced the trajectory of the fireball -- a chunk of flaming space rock.

Thousands of Front Range residents saw the fireball shortly after midnight Jan. 11.

Judging by its flight path over Monument, geologists at the Denver Museum of Natural History and private collectors raced to southwest Elbert County on Friday to search for valuable pieces of the fireball, or meteorite.

It is uncertain that the debris originated with Hale-Bopp, Stencel cautions. But all the distances, angles, velocities and known orbits of the key celestial factors raise the odds considerably.

"It's speculative, but there's enough to propose the connection,'' Stencel said.

If true, a piece of Hale-Bopp could well become one of the higher-priced items on the meteorite market. Prices range from a few dollars to $90 per gram. Cometary fragments are rare, and Hale-Bopp was a sensational event.

One prominent dealer said he advocates sharing discoveries with many researchers for analysis, as long as private ownership is not outlawed.

"Collectors and institutions should work hand-in-hand,'' said Matt Morgan, owner of Mile High Meteorites in Lakewood. "If it were a piece of Hale-Bopp, it would be quite important scientifically.''

"It's the people who say that all meteorites should be in museums that upset me,'' Morgan said. "Why shouldn't I be able to own a piece of another world?''

Of course, the clincher would be for scientists to examine a meteorite found along the fireball's flight path. Time is essential.

Jack Murphy, geology curator of the Denver Museum of Natural History, said trace gases and elements deteriorate the longer a meteorite sits on the ground.

Most meteorites come from about 10,000 asteroids -- large, orbiting leftovers from the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago. They frequently show the influence of volcanoes and the sun.

But a meteorite from a comet would contain key chemical and mineral characteristics unlike anything found on Earth and other planets, including different ratios between heavy and light elements. It may have a higher metal content, too.

"Hale-Bopp has visited the solar system only a few times and it may be made of relatively pristine materials,'' Stencel said. "The further you go from the sun, the more original, pre-solar system material it would contain.''

Hale-Bopp won't reappear here until the year 5400.

Like Sunday's fireball, Hale-Bopp was a rare and spectacular event. It was visible to the naked eye for months. Its three tails, including a unique sodium tail, streamed for millions of miles.

Up close, a comet is a spinning, tumbling chunk of ice and rock. As these dirty snowballs travel near the sun, their cores shed and spew gases and debris like geysers.

Hale-Bopp is 25 miles in diameter. It is as big as a mountain and one of the largest known comets.

January 17, 1998
© Copyright, E.W. Scripps

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