The Comet Hale-Bopp SLO Controversy and Star SAO 141894

Charles Overbeck
Matrix Editor - 1996

The controversy surrounding amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek's 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 traveling 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 images."

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 Comet Hale-Bopp Web Site, who concluded that the SLO was actually SAO 141894 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 stars.

"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.