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Splash your name across the sky

SOME companies say they will name a star after you, for a price. But the name is not official to anyone but you and the company. If you'd like to have a celestial object officially named after you, you probably need to discover a comet.

Comets are often named for the people who first find them. Sometimes that means comets with double names, when several people discover a comet at the same time. Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy were working together at the Palomar Observatory in California when they found comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1993.

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Alan Hale was in New Mexico and Thomas Bopp in Arizona when they independently discovered a new comet on July 23, 1995: the Hale-Bopp comet.

One of the best known of these small solar orbiters is Halley's Comet. It's named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, but he didn't really discover it. More like he re-discovered it.

In the 1600s, most people believed comets appeared, swooshed past the Earth, and disappeared forever into space. In 1682, Halley calculated the orbit of a particular comet and proved that it was the same one astronomers had seen in 1531 and 1607. He predicted it would return in 1758.

The comet was spotted on Christmas Day that year, proving Halley correct, though he didn't live to see it. (He had died in 1742.) The comet then became known as Halley's Comet, and it continues to reappear about every 77 years. It was last seen in 1986, so you'll have to wait until 2063 to see it again.

You'll need a telescope to be the first to spot a comet. But you don't have to be a professional astronomer. There's plenty of sky to watch, and a number of amateur astronomers have made a name for themselves by being the first to spot a new comet.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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