Hale-Bopp turns all eyes - and telescope sales - to the heavens

Raekha Prasad investigates the booming interest in astronomy sparked by the comet
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The Independent Online
The comet Hale-Bopp is doing wonders for interest in astonomy. People's desire to get a closer look at that spectacular light in the sky caused binocular and telescope sales to rocket last month.

Dixons, the photographic retailer, said its binocular sales were up 100 per cent compared with the same time last year, while an increase in sales of almost 50 per cent in Jessops', the photographic retailer, last week inspired a spokesman to say: "Thank you, comet!"

Andrew Bywater, the owner of Bywaters Photo Video in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, said he anticipated the demand and stocked up with telescopes before Christmas: he has now sold out.

Although Hale-Bopp can be seen with the naked eye, binoculars and telescopes give greater details of the two-tailed comet which is 122 million miles from Earth and not due back until the year 5997.

Corin Bennett, manager of Owens Photographic in Bromley High Street, south London, estimates that its last month's sales increased by 30 per cent. Powerful binoculars start at pounds 100 and some people are paying up to pounds 300 for a telescope.

Mr Bennett said: "Customers said they were buying specifically to look at the comet. Because the comet gets people stargazing generally, it's on their minds and many customers who come in are now contemplating astro- photography and broadening their interest in the sky."

The television astronomer Patrick Moore said there was evidence that the comet would affect the public's interest in astronomy after it disappeared into the horizon at the end of this month.

"Once your interest is awakened it tends to stay," he said. "The comet Hyakutake, which was visible last year, increased attendance at local astronomical societies and Hale-Bopp is likely to do the same.

"Of course, some people will forget about the sky once the comet leaves but really it can only have a positive effect."

The Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich had the busiest March since records began 10 years ago: 2,500 people a day visited during the Easter holiday.

The new generation considers astronomy more important than did their parents, according to Diane Robertson of the London Planetarium.

She said: "There was a feeling that parents brought their kids to Madame Tussaud's for the fun treat and the planetarium was the educational bit. But now children seem much keener to visit the planetarium.

"Now that astronomy is part of the national curriculum, this new generation is more aware that the destruction of the planet if not just a distant possibility if we don't make changes to the way we live.

"Much of the news coverage of astronomy which appeals to teenagers and adults is dependent on fantasy such as Star Wars. The hope is that Hale- Bopp will make people think: 'Oh, what a wonderful world it is out there.' "

The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, agrees it is young people who are most likely to become enraptured by the sky. He said that amateur astronomy was the grass roots of the science.

"Don't forget that Mr Hale and Mr Bopp were amateur astronomists," he said. "It is the amateurs who study the whole sky every night and notice if something is new.

"The comet makes us aware that we can look up just as we look down to a landscape."

History tells Rod Hine of the Bradford Astronomical Society that Hale- Bopp will encourage interest in the heavens. "Our society was formed 25 years ago precisely because of the space-flight activities of the late Sixties and early Seventies," he said. "It was far better patronised then than today. Events do trigger people into action - once they start looking through binoculars there is often no going back."

Hale & Bopp profile, page 21