In Memoriam, 2018: Thomas Bopp

Amateur astronomer and discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp.

click to enlarge Thomas Bopp. - Greg Houston
Greg Houston
Thomas Bopp.

Thomas Bopp

Amateur astronomer and discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp

October 15, 1949–January 5, 2018

Thomas Bopp wasn’t looking for a comet when he peered into a telescope on Saturday, July 22, 1995. In fact, he wasn’t looking for anything. By day, the 47-year-old worked for a cement company, where he made a passing mention of his interest in astronomy to Jim Stevens, who ran an auto parts store in Phoenix. It was a hobby started when Bopp was just a boy growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, when his father gave him his first telescope. Stevens, it turned out, was also interested in telescopes. By night, the two became amateur astronomers, going stargazing with Stevens’ homemade telescope in the Arizona desert, with Stevens serving as Bopp’s mentor.

That was exactly what they were doing that night, when Stevens trained his lens on a cluster of stars in the Sagittarius constellation shortly after 11 p.m. Stevens was eager for Bopp to take a look. But what he didn’t realize was he had aimed his telescope directly at an unidentified flying object — what Bopp would later describe as “a little fuzzy glow.” 

In reality, it was a 46-mile-wide hunk of ice 577 million miles away, hurtling through space toward Earth.

The stakes were high — comets are a coveted catch for astronomers, since they are conventionally named after those who discover them. But first Bopp and Stevens had to notify Harvard University to officiate the discovery.

After studying the object for several minutes to make sure it was not a star, Bopp got in his car and drove 20 miles to a truck stop to try and call Western Union from a pay phone to send a telegram to the Central Bureau of the International Astronomical Union at Harvard University, because yes, you could still send telegrams in the ’90s. The Western Union representative didn’t have an address, so Bopp hung up and got in his car and drove home. Around 3 a.m., he barged into his bedroom, woke his wife, found the address in an astronomy book, and sent the telegram with the comet’s coordinates.

The next morning, Bopp got a call from the International Astronomical Union. Unbeknownst to Bopp, another astronomer — a real astronomer, Alan Hale, with a doctorate in astronomy and everything — had also spotted the comet within minutes of him, and had already emailed the coordinates to Harvard from his home in New Mexico. But once again, the stars aligned for Bopp: By what he later described as “bizarre chance,” an IAU associate director happened to be in the office that Sunday and received the telegram. The comet, formally designated C/1995 O1, would be named Hale-Bopp, after both astronomers. 

Bopp quit his day job to attend to the media maelstrom that followed. In 1997, the comet reached perihelion, or its closest point to the sun. It lit up the night sky for more than 18 months, its long tail visible to the naked eye to millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere. It was the biggest, most visible comet since the Great Comet of 1811, and is next expected to pass Earth in 4897. —Lee DeVito