Once more, with feeling

Once more, with feeling – Halley’s Comet watching

Dennis Overbye

It was over drinks at the Verdi Club, an overdecorated Italianatebuilding on the outskirts of Alice Springs, a city of 22,000 in the middle of the Australian outback, that Miss Halley Comet Deluxe 1986 admitted with a sheepish grin that she’d never seen the comet. Miss Halley was drinking Cointreau and lemon squash; I was swimming through pitchers of Red Centre, named and colored for the red sand of the outback. Outside, the rain clouds of the past 24 hours were scudding apart; antique cars carrying veterans of the 1910 Halley watch pulled up under spotlights to discharge their frail, blinking cargo. The ball was warming up: a trickle of Aussies in Edwardian dress began to dance. The comet, a day past its closest approach to earth, was fading fast. It wouldn’t return until 2061. Miss Halley was six hours into a 76-year reign, and nothing seemed more fitting to me than that she was going to spend the next century faking it.

For a few months last winter and spring, an oblong chunk of ice a few miles on a side and encrusted with dust became the biggest object in the solar system. The world knew it as Halley’s comet. Among amateur astronmers there’s a condition known as comet fever, which is the craving to see hairy swords of light in the night sky. Halley fever is something else entirely, the compulsion to merge with history — to rub elbows with the Edwardians who saw it last and the jumpsuited

utopians who are always going to see it next — and to kill history by explaining that hairy star once and for all. I’ve had Halley fever my whole life.

I grew up in Seattle with the bottoms of clouds for sky. Comets were as fantastic to me as unicorns, and about as believable. I blew Kohoutek in 1974, and slept through another comet, West, in 1976. When the drumbeats heralding Halley’s arrival started ten years ago, I resolved to see it. I cared less that comets might have killed the dinosaurs than that they might have awakened men. I wanted some of that old-time awe. The way some people are nostalgic about the lost dependency between man and horse, I’m obsessed with the lost intimacy between man and sky, the concatenation of trembling and science and maybe wisdom. What is a comet that a man might be crazy about it? And what is a man that he might crave a comet?*

Because I’m a child of the technological age, my quest for Halley went backwards and inside out. My first view of the comet, of any comet, was in 1985 at Kitt Peak in Arizona through a four-meter telescope hung with electro-quantum gadgets for dissecting quasars at the edge of the universe. Afterward, I stepped into a 50-mile- an-hour wind outside the telescope dome, and followed my guide around the constellations with binoculars until I came upon a faint puffball of light lurking west of the Pleiades. It looked frail enough to be blown away by a good gust of light from one of those faraway suns in the Milky Way. I nicknamed it Casper the Friendly Ghost. It would be six months, 20,000 miles, and three bouts of comet flu before I got to the rituals in the Australian rain.

Nineteen eighty-six was the best and the worst of times to chaseHalley, whose orbit would keep it far from earth; in fact, it was invisible at the most interesting times. On one hand, Halley was going to run the most comprehensive gantlet of astronomical inspection in history. On the other, the megahype that by the fall of ’85 had inflicted comet T shirts on us was about to collide with the reality of what a feeble public presence Halley would be. I wondered if any of the fear, trembling, and glee with which humans have greeted comets for eons would survive the former. I wondered if astronomy would survive the latter.

And so what if the comet was going to be crummy? In a way, that was the point. The comet had other jobs to do besides showing off to the earth. Halley would be Halley; it was just being Halley somewhere rather far away. And the lesson of the sky is that virtually everything in the universe is somewhere else.

When I talked to the purveyors of Halley paraphernalia, who weredoing great until Halley actually showed up, they claimed that the comet was going to usher in an age of cosmological consciousness. ”The comet is like some celestial Pied Piper,” said Owen Ryan, a Manhattan marketing consultant who was briefly famous as the man who was going to make $8 million by putting Halley on cereal boxes but had to settle for postage stamps instead. ”It’s going to be a transfor- mation event for the world.”

I was an aging revolutionary tired of reading that lawyers and investment bankers were the heroes of the 1980s. If a single soul anywhere was transformed by Halley’s comet, I wanted to be there. red Whipple, 79, climbed the stairs from Moscow’s elegantly marbled subway, stepped into the March sunlight, and proceeded gingerly across black ice coated with a thin layer of new melt. A mountain of dirty snow was piled on a construction site in front of the Space Research Institute (known by its Russian initials, IKI). Inside, the seance, as it was so aptly called, was beginning in a room with red flags and bottles of mineral water: the daily communications session with the fleet of spacecraft heading for Halley’s comet. Whipple was asked if he’d ever dreamed of being here. ”I always assumed I’d be going to one of our space centers in the Southwest,” he said. ”But I think the comet is like this slush we’re trudging through. I always thought of it like that — Moscow in late winter.”

For Whipple, Moscow was in a sense the end of the line, the climax of a life that neatly spanned Halley’s cycle and had been devoted to comets. Thirty-six years ago, when Halley had barely begun its fall sunward, Whipple, a Harvard professor with a gentle, unflappable air, invented the modern conception of the comet as a chunk of dirty ice, its surface volatized whenever it’s subjected to the sun’s hot breath.

The dirty snowball was the only comet theory I’d ever heard of. Whipple made comets very important, no mere astronomical sideshow but chemical messengers from the era before the solar system was formed, pristine hunks of what it had been formed from. (Some theorists have suggested that the water and organic molecules needed for life were deposited on the early earth by comet bom- bardments. The heretical Fred Hoyle has even proposed that living organisms evolved in the warm, moist crannies of comet nuclei and then floated to earth in the form of viruses and bacteria.) Until this March, nobody or anything had been close enough to a comet to know if the dirty snowball theory was right.

To me Whipple was the ghost of comets and space programs past. Iwas lured to Moscow in part by the spectacle of the changing of the guard in space exploration, another consequence, I suppose, of the comet’s propensity to incite turbulence and unrest. In the late 1970s, while NASA, its science budget being devoured by the space shuttle, was repeatedly saying no to mounting a comet mission, the Soviet Academy of Sciences had said yes. As a result, comet collaborators and the instrument nuts had flowed east. The scene at IKI — herds of Germans, French, Americans, and Hungarians charging up and down the big staircase, a different language being spoken behind every door, an associate administrator of NASA buttonholing reporters on the subway to extol the glories of international cooperation — reeked of epochs ending and beginning.

At the center of this swirling tableau was IKI’s 53-year-old director, Roald Sagdeyev, the Wernher von Braun of comet probes, the new boss of space exploration. Sagdeyev, a brilliant plasma physicist, is a fast mover, having been elected to the Academy of Sciences at 36 and put in charge of IKI at 41. While NASA, unbeknownst to him, was eschewing a mission to Halley, Sagdeyev had been getting a little bored with Venus, to which the Soviets had been sending probes since 1961. In 1979, he says, someone asked him if a pair of planned Venus orbiters would be able to see Halley’s comet. The answer was no — but Sagdeyev quickly realized that instead of going into orbit around Venus, the spacecraft could drop their packages of weather balloons at Venus and go past it to Halley. And he scrapped the orbiters, after six years of planning, then and there, throwing the project into a fury of redesign. Thus were born Vegas 1 and 2 (Vega is an amalgam of the Russian for Venus and Halley).

The Vegas were a product of Interkosmos, a sort of Warsaw Pact space collaboration, but some of their components were from West ern Europe. The Vega cameras, for example, were assembled by the Russians, using Hungarian electronics, French optics, and a Russian charge-coupled device (CCD), the detector of choice in astronomy. Sagdeyev could pull all this together so fast because Soviet Proton rockets can lift tremendous loads into orbit or deep space, which made it possible to add gadgets to the spacecraft without having to worry lest it become too heavy to get off the ground; because he works under a five-year budget, which allows him to start a project knowing he’ll be able to finish it without interference from the Kremlin’s version of OMB; and because he’s one cool dude. Said a West German physicist, ”With NASA you have to prove your gear works before it can fly, but how can you prove your instrument if it’s not flying? Here if the great director says ‘Go,’ it’s O.K.”

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA), looking for ways to flex its muscles, had decided to fly a probe called Giotto (after the Florentine who painted a likeness of Halley as the Star of Bethlehem in his Adoration of the Magi) past the comet. ESA science director Ernst Trendelenberg flew to Moscow and, over lunch with Sagdeyev, cut a deal: the Vegas would go by Halley first, and their data would be used to guide Giotto through the dense comet dust cloud to within 300 miles of the nucleus. The Japanese joined in with a couple of small probes of their own. The Americans came along as expert navigators. Something known as the Inter Agency Consultative Group (IACG) was set up and became a sort of traveling comet congress. It was as delegates to the IACG that a dozen American scientists and NASA officials found themselves trudging through the Moscow slush.

met the new boss of interplanetary science on the eve of the first comet encounter. The furniture and walls of the office were blindingly polished pine: the principal decorations were a portrait of Lenin and a large radar map of Venus. Sagdeyev favors dark glasses and black ties on dark brown shirts, and lets his wavy brown hair curl over his collar. He speaks colloquial English and is fast with a quip, particularly if the subject is Star Wars, on which he is one of Gorbachev’s prime spokesmen. It’s said that when the media and the distinguished visitors aren’t around, rock ‘n roll blasts down the corridors of IKI.

”The IACG provided an atmosphere of friendliness and cooperation that has been too rare these last few years,” Sagdeyev said with a sigh. ”Even if the Americans had decided in 1980-81 to go to Halley, we would’ve gone too. By then our plans were irreversible.” For Sagdeyev, international cooperation was part of the unwritten agenda of the Vega missions, and his next project, a visit to the Martian moon Phobos, will carry experiments from eleven nations.

Discussion of Phobos led Sagdeyev into a description of his grand vision of space cooperation, in which the superpowers turn their energies from the arms race to giant joint projects. Give up Star Wars, he says, and go with us on a manned trip to Mars, a mission neither country can afford to make on its own.

Sagdeyev had vowed to conduct the comet encounter U.S. style, with the press on hand, glitzy computer graphics, real-time television pictures, and painful, detailed post- mortems of what went wrong, as some things inevitably do. On the morning I arrived at IKI, I found color-contoured images of a fan- shaped Halley displayed on television monitors. There were French labels on some sets, and, with a slightly different color scheme, labels in Cyrillic letters on others. Halley didn’t look anything like the tiny blur I’d seen with binoculars two months before.

Most of the Vega instrument teams had set up their data receiving and analysis stations in a basement half the size of a football field. At the far end was a full-scale engineering model of a Vega spacecraft — ten feet tall with booms, antennas, and a massive arm with television cameras slung down one side. It was surrounded by scaffolding and test equipment. Hanging on the scaffolding like a sailor in the rigging was Brad Smith, the University of Arizona astronomer who’s head of the imaging team of the Voyager spacecraft that passed Uranus last winter.

The team, led by a Hungarian nuclear physicist, Karoly Szego, turned out to be a miniature Babel. The French, Hungarians, Soviets, and East Germans all had image processing systems of their own. The basement resembled an international computer showroom. In one corner the Austrians were showing off the computer they’d built specially to bring to Moscow after the U.S. had refused to allow them to bring in IBMs. Across the room John Simpson, a University of Chicago physicist, had a brace of — what else? — IBMs.

Simpson, who had an instrument on Vega, was Sagdeyev’s biggest coup, an icon of international cooperation, the ghost, if you like, of the space program future. A veteran of the Manhattan Proj ect who later helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Simpson is one of the grand old men of American physics. Three years ago he came up with an idea for a new kind of interplanetary dust detector that would have been perfect for a NASA Halley mission, but couldn’t fly it. NASA flies only tried and true hardware — and offers flight opportunities very rarely these days, anyway.

In the fall of 1983 Simpson described his idea in a talk in the Netherlands, and Sagdeyev heard about it. Soon thereafter a puzzled Simpson received a Telex from Sagdeyev accepting his proposal. A comet, after all, is nothing if not dust. Before Simpson could design and build an instrument and ship it to Moscow, he had to make his peace with the technology guardians of the Reagan administration, whose attitude seems to be that if it weren’t for spies and dupes the Soviets would still be defending themselves with vats of boiling oil. The State Department set up an interagency task force to look into Simpson’s proposal, a tactic that should have stalled approval into the next decade, but didn’t. So he wouldn’t be accused of aiding and abetting the Soviets in the arms race, Simpson set instrument design back a generation, by using parts of the sort one might find at Radio Shack.

By the time Simpson got through the U.S. bureaucracy, the Soviets had given him up for dead. Leonid Ksanfomaliti, the IKI lab chief, came back from vacation to arrange a meeting with Simpson. In the wake of the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and the death of Yuri Andropov, relations between America and the U.S.S.R. were, as Ksanfomaliti put it, ”heavy.” To avoid the edginess a meeting in Moscow might have engendered, he and Simpson agreed to get together in the imaging team’s offices in Budapest.

Nervous and strangers to each other, the two men were ushered into the director’s office, and Simpson got up to describe his idea. As Ksanfomaliti tells it, ”Professor Simpson was switched on, just as a tape recorder would be switched on. Then he waited for an answer, not knowing who we were.” Ksanfomaliti handed out some of his scientific papers, which revealed him to be, among other things, the discoverer of lightning on Venus. The tension broke.

By then it was almost too late even for the fast-moving Sagdeyevto accommodate Simpson’s device. Launch was in December. The spacecraft engineering was already done; the final drawings were drawn.The extra six pounds was no problem for the mighty Proton, but there was no provision for relaying Simpson’s data back to earth. The Vegas would only relay data to the ground in short bursts each day, and the time was all subscribed. The telemetry problem was solved by allowing Simpson to stick his information in the gaps of other instruments’ data trains. ”It was rather hairy,” says Ksanfomaliti. In the spring Sagdeyev shipped spacecraft simulator hardware to Chicago; Simpson and his team spent the summer in Moscow attaching their devices to the Vegas.

All this back and forth made Simpson and Sagdeyev a kind of odd couple of U.S.-Soviet cooperation at a time when the two nations weren’t speaking. Some of Simpson’s colleagues were annoyed with him, not for getting his instrument on Vega, but for bragging about how he’d beaten the system, had sneaked one past the Reagan administration. ”He acted like an ass,” said one scientist.

Meanwhile, Sagdeyev had to answer to the powerful Soviet Academyof Sciences. There were doubts, he admits, about whether they could list Simpson with the prime investigators or only in the fine print as a subcontractor. Simpson said, ”You can imagine the pressures. He has his own hawks. A lot of Eastern European scientists would’ve liked to get an experiment on board.” In the end, Simpson was designated a principal investigator.

Simpson’s was one of five dust detectors and inspectors on the Vegas, including an ambitious West German device that analyzed dust grains for their chemical and atomic abundances. Dust is the glory of the comet — the sweeping tail and the bright head are just sunlight bouncing off spewn dust — and, once the camera jockeys had their way with the nucleus, it became clear that dust was the comet’s mystery prize. A month after perihelion, Halley was spewing 25 to 60 tons of water vapor per second, and the vapor swept comet dust outward with it. Sealed in ice since before the solar system condensed out of interstellar froth, those dust grains were the ashes of stars that existed before the sun was born. Astronomers think that the supernova explosion of one of those stars triggered the collapse of a proto-solar cloud of gas and dust to form the sun and planets, seeding it with heavy elements at the same time.

And it’s dust that makes comet diving dangerous. All this multilingual technical virtuosity didn’t guarantee that we’d see Halley’s hallowed nucleus. Vega would be flying through a dust storm at 49 miles per second and would be going where the dust was thickest, perhaps because it was fed by geysers that became more ferocious the closer you got to Halley’s heart.

At nine o’clock on March 6, we were in a large dark room. Sovietpoliticians, members of the Academy of Sciences, bulky old men in brown suits, sat behind sections of a giant, ring-shaped conference table that had been rearranged into rows. The table was littered with bottles of mineral water and Pepsi. In the hall Carl Sagan was doing TV stand-ups. On either side of the front wall, giant projection screens showed Halley as a set of green and orange bands. Below them, computer graphics that no NASA whiz ever dreamed of were displaying the comet’s magnetic field and the energies of charged particles swarming around its head. The pictures changed every four

minutes. Colored shapes appeared at the center and swam outward, disappearing off the edges of the frame. Albert Galeyev, Sagdeyev’s deputy, was hopping around with a microphone and a pointer, explaining everything as it came up. A woman’s sleepy voice whispered in my ears a more or less simultaneous translation.

Galeyev is in radio contact with experiment specialists monitoring the data in another room. He’s asking questions, or is it the audience asking questions? When Vega 1 gets within 375,000 miles of the nucleus somebody announces that two dust particles per second are hitting the spacecraft.

Galeyev keeps asking the imaging people to tell him when they see the nucleus. He counts down the distance: 37,000 miles, 24,000, 7,500. The voice in my ear lags further and further behind the speakers. I can’t tell who’s talking. The sentences seem to flop over on themselves. We’re lost in a cloud now, searching with a feeble lantern for the dark heart of Halley. The vehicle is getting sandblasted; the image is jumping around from frame to frame as Vega 1’s solar panels are jolted. Galeyev announces that the imaging team is debating whether they can see the nucleus. Some claim to have seen two or three nuclei. At closest approach, he says, the nucleus should be about four pixels wide.

He points to a faint red spot inside a field of green. Is that the nucleus, he asks? They’re perplexed because it doesn’t seem to have the sharp boundaries of a rock seen in a dust cloud. What are its dimensions? Three or four kilometers, comes the answer. The room bursts into applause. It’s the nucleus by acclamation.

At 10:35 a.m., Sagdeyev walks through the room shaking hands, but he can’t get far. Everybody reaches for him. Suddenly the heads of the national delegations are on their feet giving testimonial speeches. Sagdeyev squirms. ”Comrades, this break in the businesslike atmosphere was not planned,” he says. Trendelenberg says, in English, thank goodness, ”This cooperation has proved one point. Our systems may be different but we are friends anywhere. I’m proud to call Roald Sagdeyev one of my best friends alive.”

Sagdeyev asks, ”Can we get the picture back?”

On a bus to the Foreign Ministry and a formal press conference, Simpson is ebullient. ”We were tuned tighter than a violin string,” he confides. ”A certain crowd was waiting to see us fail.” He displays a record of dust hits that reveals a vicious barrage just after Vega’s closest approach, about 5,600 miles; the spacecraft flew right into one of Halley’s jets.

The next day nobody knew what they’d seen. Debate raged about whether a second bright spot was another nucleus or a jet coming out of the first, or, indeed, whether the strangely fuzzy object was the nucleus after all. Smith and Sagdeyev suggested that the nucleus was buried in a cocoon of dust, and Sagdeyev joked that Halley was suffering from its own nuclear winter. Whipple just chuckled sagely. After thirty years of waiting, he wasn’t going to indulge in instant science.

The dust had creamed Vega 1, knocking out 45 per cent of its power, one instrument completely, and several others partially. Sagdeyev’s report sounded like a combat summary: ”We can say for sure that for Vega 1 instruments, the kinetic energy of the dust was such that it killed the vehicle. This [language] was taken from the SDI dictionary.”

I found the destruction of the spacecraft perversely encouragingand the idea of a mask of dust even more exciting. At some point I’d begun to root for the comet. I wasn’t ready for it to be reduced to an inert blob, replete with mini craters and mountains named for comet scientists. I hated to see Whipple disappointed, but Halley’s mystery could slip the noose for another 76 years. One robot invader down, two to go.

And for a while the comet held. On the morning of March 9 we were back in the burnished conference room, once more sailing vicariously through the banded cloud, this time with Vega 2, aimed for a 5,000-mile nuclear miss. Galeyev was in command again. According tothe variable ”breathing” coma first observed five months earlier by the Japanese Suisei probe, Vega 2, coming in three days after its sister, should see the less active side of the rotating nucleus.

Twenty minutes before the moment of truth, Halley struck again. In the pictures, which mysteriously shifted to a wider field of view, there was a suspicious lack of detail of the nucleus. As Vega 2 cruised in, the colorful contours rolled past: the coma was painted in subtle gradations with rays and jets, while the nucleus sat in the middle of it all, a featureless blob — burned out, overexposed.

After lunch, Sagdeyev gave an hour seminar on the Vega camera and pointing systems. A microprocessor that kept the camera pointed at the brightest part of the comet, presumably the nucleus, had failed or been blown to smithereens by a dust particle. The backup system hadn’t been calibrated as accurately as the main one, so the nucleus wandered a bit from the center of the frame. The camera was determining its exposure times from the brightness at the center of the pic- ture, which meant it was basing them on the somewhat dimmer coma near the nucleus, so the nucleus would be overexposed. Behind him, slides flipped comically faster and faster, showing the geometry of the CCD array, the pointing system errors, running ever further out of sync with the sleepy female voice in my ears.

The preliminary damage report again warmed my Luddite heart: 80 per cent of the power lost, and four instruments, including the camera, damaged or lost. Sagdeyev showed a piece of solar panel that had been cratered by dust in a test, and made another joke about Star Wars.

Then, during the night, two pictures that had been lost in the videotape system all day popped back out perfectly exposed. The nucleus was sharp and clear: it looked like a peanut, with a bright lobe at each end — a peanut ten miles long. And that was how 2,200 years of dread was ended — predictably, a pipsqueak behind a curtain of dust. Now the pipsqueak had a face. I went looking for Whipple, but he’d already left for Darmstadt, West Germany, and Giotto.

It was a path the entire Moscow comet circus was to follow. The next act of this space opera was to take place at 1 a.m., March 14, when Giotto zipped to within 380 miles of Halley. Giotto’s home base was the ESA control center in the woods on the edge of Darmstadt, a suburb of Frankfurt.

Giotto, a simpler spaceship than Vega, had a more complex camerasystem, the product of a team led by Horst Keller, who took diligent notes during Vega. Now it was his turn. Competitive tensions between the various space probe teams were more apparent before the sudden glare of the Western media. When ESA’s new science director, Roger Bonnet, described the imminent Giotto encounter as the most important space mission of the year, Sagdeyev, hip in a black shirt and tie, looked up sharply.

Giotto was supposed to get the closeup pictures of the craters, mountains, geysers, and cracks on Halley, but it was heading into the valley of dusty death. Moreover, it was going to deliver its pictures in the same garish rainbow-colored contours that Vega had. I wanted to see the comet, not a map of it.

Giotto lasted just long enough to take the ultimate nuclear picture — a giddy swirl of contours that later proved to be jets brighter than the nucleus — before its camera was sandblasted to nothingness. It was enough for Keller to announce triumphantly that the nucleus was nine miles long and ”black as velvet.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the Giotto people began to sniff that perhaps Vega hadn’t seen the nucleus after all, but only the dust jets head on — an attitude that vexed Smith when I tracked him down in Budapest, where he was living and acting as a sort of one-man Vega image analysis team. The Vega nucleus measurements, in fact, matched Giotto’s. On a Hungarian computer, in black and white, without the circus contours at last, the nucleus looked like a dark, leg-

less water buffalo with strange rays shooting off its head.

Smith wasn’t surprised that Halley was so dark. In the past few years the Voyagers and other deep-space probes have found a lot of very black objects in the outer solar system. The most widely accepted theory is that the black stuff is carbon compounds like those so abundant in meteors. Moreover, the surface is intricately and microscopically porous, so that trapped light bounces around in endless crevices, making the comet even darker.

I told Smith, who has solved more than his share of mysteries, that I was sorry Halley had to end up like this, a charcoal peanut. He sighed and said, ”The other side of planetary exploration is that the romance is lost. Objects like Halley’s comet have a romantic mystique. You see them up close and they still have scientific interest, but they lose their mystery. Poor Halley has joined the ranks of being just another celestial body instead of a phenomenon.”

I departed from Budapest vaguely dejected. I still hadn’t seen Halley’s comet, but then again, hardly anybody outside a few control rooms had. But there was still hope. On Feb. 9 Halley had passed closest to the sun — but on the other side of it from earth — and received the pulse of heat that should have caused its icy heart to blossom into the full glory of comethood. From then on Halley was dying, but coming closer to earth. The trick was to see it as soon as the moon and sun got out of the way. Halley’s orbit is tilted; at perihelion it had been north of the ecliptic plane in which the earth revolves around the sun, but by March Halley had crossed the ecliptic heading south. A comet chaser would be well advised to do likewise. I flew south.

Ayers Rock breaches the red rolling sands of the Australian outback, smack in the center of the continent, like a giant meat loaf a mile and a half long by a mile wide and 1,100 feet high. As of April 1 it hadn’t rained at the rock for more than three years. That, along with the lack of man-made light in the outback, is the sort of condition that warms the heart of an amateur astronomer looking for a place to see a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Two years earlier Sky and Telescope magazine, the bible of skygazers, had rated Central Australia as the best place to see the comet.

That set off a peculiar outbreak of Halley fever Down Under, in which sufferers see not only fiery swords but also glistening silver in the sky. A year before the comet’s arrival, you couldn’t book a room or a flight for the Halley season. I kept hearing rumors of a tent city for 40,000 Japanese.

It so happened that a corporate consortium with government financing had just finished building a tourist resort known as Yulara outside Uluru National Park, which contains Ayers Rock. I figured Yulara was the place to be. I could sit, and comet craziness would come to me. But when I arrived on April 1, Yulara wasn’t exactly burning with comet fever. A proposed rock concert to be held just outside town on April 11, Halley Harmony Day, had been scrubbed for lack of bands. All that was left was a record called Halley’s Comet, 1986 circa 2061 by the White Light Orchestra, an Australian all-star rock band heavily into synthesizers and old NASA tape recordings of the moon landings.

I’d been steered to Yulara by Dennis di Cicco, the observing editor of Sky and Telescope shepherd of all the nuts and star bums, who think nothing of booking airplane seats for their telescopes to remote corners of the world for celestial happenings. Di Cicco showed up at my door in Yulara with two suitcases and a 100-pound crate. I didn’t get around to an inventory of his equipment until two weeks later when we were about to leave, but then, even after constant day and night photography with his half a dozen cameras, he still had 58 rolls of unexposed film left, eleven bottles of unused darkroom chemicals, nine pounds of batteries, and assorted clips, plastic sleeves, magnifiers, air spray, and tape.

A few hours after Dennis’s arrival we were pacing a red dirt road on the outskirts of Yulara waiting for the comet to rise. Di Cicco saw it come over the horizon, and when I didn’t, I knew I’d been burned once more. Through the binoculars it was just Casper the Friendly Ghost again, a little brighter but no more terrifying than three months before. The puffball had changed into more of a teardrop, and if you tried hard, you could imagine a soft tail stretching away from it for maybe two or three degrees. But the experts had predicted 10 or 20 degrees of tail — a Big Dipper’s width. These were the men who got us to the moon, who brought us the expanding universe. It occurred to me that predictions about Halley were more like those that said ”Fifty percent chance of rain on Tuesday,” or even ”Beware of sudden involvements with Geminis.” While I tried to imagine a Halley tail, di Cicco took pictures. Suddenly, he blurted, ”I can’t believe how bad the comet looks. Christ, I mean there’s nothing left.” He kicked the dirt.

The first Sky and Telscope tour staggered in by bus late the next afternoon, armed to the teeth with telescopes, clock drives, cameras, binoculars, star charts, and folding lawn chairs. A group like that wasn’t going to be fazed by a fizzled comet — there was too much else to see. Three galaxies are visible to the naked eye from Ayers Rock — our own, and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. In fact, the southern sky has more of everything than the northern. Off to the left of the romantic Southern Cross (four stars in the shape of Charlie Brown’s kite after it has hit the tree) was Omega Centauri, a globular cluster of ten million stars, a round squash of light not unlike Halley but bigger. Sagittarius was littered with fuzzy nebulae — gas clouds and star clusters first catalogued by Charles Messier in the eighteenth century so that stargazers wouldn’t mistake them for, yes, comets. My favorite was a tiny cluster called the Jewel Box, on the edge of a dark blotch known as the Coal Sack; every star in it was a different color.

Each day another tour hit Yulara, where the average stay is 1.4 days. There was the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the Rice University group and its rival from the University of Texas, the Rockland County, N.Y. amateur astronomers, who were the best drinkers of the lot, and something called the Hard Core Blue Group. They would roar in on their buses late in the afternoon, straggle through the buffet dinner, get shipped out to darkness to see the comet and the galaxies, come back and go to bed (the bar closed at midnight) so that they could get up at six to climb the rock. Then they returned to lie by the pool, drink comet cocktails — blue curacao, lemonade, and rum — and compare astrophotographs in the druggy midday heat. Later they’d climb back into their buses to photograph the Rock from the official sunset point, which at 6 p.m. was the third largest population center in the Northern Territory. After dinner there’d be time for one last shot of the comet before they had to pack for the morning bus ride out of Yulara, and on to the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney, or the kangaroo farm.

”This is a good group,” a travel agency type told me one morning while en route to the ritual rock climb, ”They’re up in the morning, ready for anything. They stay up all night.”

A tail-less Halley, hopping five degrees from night to night, worked its way across the Milky Way. But it seemed no one who had spent $5,000 or so and put up with eight-hour bus rides was go- ing to be disappointed. I was surrounded by good sports. ”Nobody cares about the comet,” reported one tour leader. ”They’re all blown away to see Omega Centauri through a ten-inch telescope.”

”Fantastic!” Natalie, a Melbourne punkster in the Yulara bar, gushed when I asked her about Halley. ”It’s just a little speck. It’s not big like last time, but it’s a sight we’ve shared with the people seventy-six years ago and seventy-six years before that and seventy- six years before that. It sees all the past and all the future.”

Bored with complacent astronomers, I decided to seek Halley excitement among the aboriginals, who own Ayers Rock and have lived in its shadow for 40,000 years. According to a leaflet written by the local comet expert, whose European name is Peter Kunari, Wurluru, as the aboriginals call the comet, is a large man who lives alone and carries a pack of spears that can kill if you’re scratched with one. Wurluru eats dogs, kangaroos, and even humans raw. On the other hand he feels sorry for children and will make game appear for men with large families. If you look at him for too long, your eyes will spin. If you touch him, you die.

I became a disciple of aboriginal affairs. One night during an orientation meeting on aboriginal relations at the ranger station, there was a knock on the door and an American popped his head in wanting to know how long the gathering would last. His tour was set up in the picnic area behind the station, and the light shining through the windows was spoiling the group’s photographs. A ranger offered to turn off the lights and finish the meeting in the dark. The astronomer thanked him and ran back outside. The rangers waited until he was gone to laugh.

We disbanded, and I went down a pair of outback ruts to a photographic camp that di Cicco and I had set up, lay on the hood of my car with the binoculars, and looked up. What is a man that he can be crazy about a comet, and a wimpy one at that?

There were three fuzzy balls almost touching in the sky. Halley was now a short stubby fan of light, its tail (so to speak) foreshortened by perspective, passing in front of a galaxy known as NGC 5128, famous for its intense radio emissions and a dark slash of dust across its belly, and close to Omega Centauri, the great star cloud. There, in one binocular field, was the whole universe: an ice crumb a few light-minutes away; a million packed stars at the range of the galactic center, 10,000 light-years away; and a whole galaxy, a trillion stars, a thousand times farther out. There, if you could comprehend it, was real terror. Well, you old charcoal peanut, I thought, you’ve made the big time at last.

Smith’s epitaph had been premature. We’d only traded up the mystery ladder with our charge-coupled toys. We’d lost the story that Halley was the devil’s hair sparking pestilence and war, but we’d gained what I call the parable of the dust. It goes like this: Once long, long ago there was a mighty star. It burned with such intensity that it exploded. In a few thermonuclear seconds that dazzled the galaxy, it became stardust, rich in the heavy chemical elements needed for life. That dust invaded a nearby cloud of gas, tipped it toward collapse, andwas swept up in the creation of the sun and planets, and eventually long gooey molecules. On the outskirts of what would be the solar system, dust collected ice until one day the sun’s heat would set it free. Halley is just the remains of the star whose stuff formed us and our sun, its light the light of its daughter, the echo of another sun that once filled the heavens and beat down on strange planets.

So, what is a comet? What is a man? The answer to both questionsis the same: stardust.

But how did dust know to grow eyes to behold itself?

To the astronomers this was all so old they had forgotten that it’s literally true. There was no one with whom to babble about such things in a town full of practical sorts who spent all day in their hotel rooms developing film in the bathtub, and whose main obsession was finding Sigma Octans, the South Pole star to which telescopes have to be aligned to take publishable astrophotographs. I was beginning to feel like a cosmic portrait of Dorian Gray: the reporter sent out to find comet craziness is the only one who goes crazy.

And so at last I went to Alice Springs, a relative metropolis about 200 miles northeast of Ayers Rock, to discover the comet craziness that had eluded me in Yulara. ”We’ll celebrate anything here,” said a woman at the airport. I figured that any town that holds an annual regatta on a dry river bed, the not so famous Henley-on-Todd, in which the participants carry their boats, might celebrate the famous, if feeble, comet with gusto. Besides, it was cloudy in Alice Springs — it actually rained the night of April 11, and the local paper the next day ran a front page picture of the British astronomer and writer Patrick Moore scowling like a monocled bulldog as he raised a fist to the sky from under his umbrella — so there was no excuse not to party. Reading the Alice Springs paper down in Yulara, it had seemed there was nothing there but parties, from the Saturday night chicken dinner picnic, to a special Halley version of the aforementioned regatta and the Red Cross Star Gazers Ball (music by the Fortified Four) with a prize for the best costume, to the Lions Fosters Halley’s Camel Carnival, which was camel racing interspersed with rickshaw races and the Miss Halley’s Comet Deluxe contest.

The Miss Halley pageant seemed less than promising when I arrived at the race track. The sky was overcast, and the camels were in their pen looking nasty. I was burning with questions to ask the judges — what were they looking for in a Miss Halley? — and the contestants. But both were hard to find. owever, I did find Curt Wiegele, a barrel-chested man with a handlebar moustache who was more or less in charge of the afternoon. In two hours, he said, the contestants would parade around the track so the crowd could see them. An hour later there would be a lineup, and the judges would announce their choice. First prize was a sash, a giant trophy, and a round-trip bus ticket to Adelaide — 1,000 miles or so (600 of them unpaved) south on the Indian Ocean. The Miss Halley contest was for this year only supplanting the annual Miss Camel Cup; in that event the year before, the judging had ended prematurely when a Swedish beauty excited such loud chants from the grandstand that Wiegele told the mayor, who was head judge, ”Elect her — or they’ll tear the bloody stadium down.”

Either Wiegele and the contest chairman, Les Pilton, were being evasive about the makeup of the judges’ panel, or it was still nonexistent. Was the mayor going to lend a hand? Yes, and then no. How many judges were there? ”It depends on how many VIPs we get,” said Wiegele.

By then a few hundred racegoers were prowling the fairgrounds, and you could tell at a glance that some of them had what they needed to attain celestial fame. None of them, however, seemed to have heard of the Miss Halley contest. Faced with a deteriorating situation, my photographer, Roger Ressmeyer, and I did what any comet-crazed journalists would do. We recruited. It was grueling busi- ness; our efforts often met with apathy, embarrassment, or hostility. Melissa, who wore her long dark hair in dreadlocks, said, ”Personally, I think beauty contests are ideologically unsound.” As a citizen I had to agree with her, but I was on a mission for the comet. She signed up.

With just an hour to go, there were still only ten entrants, and the teenaged daughters of senior Lions Club members were running scared, or at least giggling. It was about then that Merryn Austin hove into view, red-haired, green-eyed, and wearing a black vest, jeans, a black cowboy hat, and black cowboy boots. She seemed about six and a half feet tall. She didn’t know any more about Miss Halley than anybody else, and she’d already been to Adelaide, but after much hemming and hawing, she said she’d consider signing up if her friend could. We said sure. Then I pointed out the clincher: if she won she’d have the title for 76 years.

Meanwhile I’d been pestering Pilton about the judges, and dropping hints that I might be available. Finally, he gave me the nod. As I later told the Sydney Daily Telegraph, it was mean work, but somebody had to do it.

I didn’t meet my fellow judges until the contestants, now 38 strong, were lining up at the gate for the ritual walkaround. So much for probing philosophical questions about the nature of beauty or whatever qualities Miss Halley was supposed to have. Our leader was Colin, the Northern Territory marketing manager for Fosters (Australia’s most popular beer), and a very important person indeed. The other judge, Cicely, was presumably the mayor’s representative. She taught handi- capped children in Brighton, England, and she immediately deferred to Colin and me, as if we knew what we were doing.

In our quick caucus, I asked if we were going to be scientific — for example, give all the contestants points as diving judges would, or assign numerical ratings to their various attributes. Were we even going to talk to them? Colin did know what he was doing. ”The ideal,” he said, ”is for Miss Halley to look the least like a camel and the most like a comet. A heavenly body.”

The contestants marched clockwise (opposite to the direction thecamels ran) around the track in twos and threes. There was no clear crowd favorite, although one woman who did cartwheels and backflips as she paraded around the course with her pooch got a smattering of applause. Colin said, ”I’m voting for her dog because it has six boobs.”

But even before we pretended we needed another lineup and a chance to chat with the contestants, two of us had already fallen in love with Miss Austin. Colin got to give her a kiss and presented her with a trophy three feet high. The National Geographic photographer pointed out that it was a camel race trophy. Pilton apologized. Austin dropped the aloof, jaded look she’d carried all afternoon and announced she was trembling.

”How does it feel to be a cosmic symbol,” I asked, as all 38 contestants, the judges, and the chairman climbed onto the back of a trailer to be towed around the stadium. She answered, ”Unreal.”

The trailer had a flat tire, so we proceeded to jolt around the track hanging onto a wobbly railing and each other while the thump of the bad wheel drowned out the deafening cheers.

Even before she became a cosmic symbol, the 5 ft.11 in. Austin was, as they say in those parts, ”a bit of a goer.” She had been born

20 years earlier in Melbourne, her first name taken from a comicbook her mother was reading in the hospital. Mum was 19, and Merryn was her second. ”Mum’s a bit of a goer,” said Miss Halley, grinning. Merryn was working part-time as a receptionist for an advertising agency, but was ”mostly on the dole,” when a friend got a brochure in the mail for a camping tour in western Aus- tralia. ”Oh let’s go,” she’d said.

A comet tour? ”Yes,” she said, her eyes widening, ”a comet tour.” They’d spent a few nights at Yulara before coming to Alice Springs, and it was there she’d seen the comet, through binoculars. What did she think? ”I thought it would be bigger,” she said.

It was only a camel race in the desert, but greater things have come from humbler origins. Pilton and Wiegele, not to mention the lascivious but honest Colin, were, I thought, the salt of the earth. They didn’t know what they were really doing. To my knowledge no place else on earth had dared to dream of such a conceit as a comet queen. In their innocence, there was genius. They had created a torch to be passed three generations into the future. Merryn Austin is the only Miss Halley in the solar system, the universe. When the comet comes again, Austin will be 96. She might make it. Her story was just beginning. And I wanted it to be a fairy tale. She was my soul transformed, the one person the comet’s Brigadoon glow had touched. I took her to meet her constituency at the Back to Halley’s Ball, but she wouldn’t deign to wear her royal blue sash. ”I’m not going to be a good Miss Halley Comet,” she said, looking forward to a lifetime or, at least, an evening of cosmic amusement. ”I’m going to be bad.”

Before long she had blurted out the bitter truth about her cometexperiences. ”I lied,” she confessed. ”I tried to see it, but I was too drunk.” For a while I told myself it didn’t matter. In fact I was charmed that she’d carried it off in front of the world press. She had talent. She looked chagrined and said, ”I’ll see it, honest I will,” like a teenager promising to clean her room.

The oldtimers trooped in. The oldest, Norman Gurr, 94, remembered seeing the comet while he was kicking around in the bush in 1910, but not what it looked like. He hadn’t seen it this time. ”They tell me there’s hardly any tail,” he said sadly. He preferred to go on about his war experiences. He was at Gallipoli. ”It wasn’t the fighting that was so terrible, it was the living,” he said. Charlie Jenkins, a youngster at 86, recalled getting dragged to see the comet by his father, who’d said Charlie had to come because he wouldn’t see Halley again — ”Well I saw it again,” he said, though he wasn’t impressed, and suggested that maybe he’d have to stick around and see it yet again. Kitt Colston, 85, remembered having danced to her father’s violin on a hill while they watched in 1910. When I told her about Jenkins’s ambition, she shook her head gently, and said, ”I think we might look at it from Heaven next time.”

When I got back to Miss Halley, she was into her second Cointreau and lemon. I knew then that God had given me this airline ticket to Australia for a reason. Seventy-six years is a long time to tumble in the void. Austin needs a ticket on Sagdeyev’s spaceliner. She needs a vision to keep stepping forward, if we expect her, rheumy, bent, and crotchety, to place a bony benediction on

some lucky princess halfway through the twenty-first century, topersonify the fragile generational chain, to give wit- ness to the reality of the great elsewhere, of the charcoal peanut and its endless, looping road from mystery to mystery.

I knew as plainly as I know it will rain some day at Ayers Rock that she and her mates weren’t likely to stumble across this fading comet in the twelve hours she had left before heading home. It was up to me to be the cotter pin between generations.

There wasn’t a night or an hour to lose. I roused Miss Halley and we left the matrons of the Back to 1910 Ball with their introductions to cosmic royalty still forming in their throats. I drove east from the lights, racing clouds and dodging cattle. Twenty-five miles out of town we were in the bush, and finally beyond the clouds. Suddenly it was as dark as Yulara.

Miss Halley was still slightly tipsy as she lurched breathlesslyabout on the sand and rock, dodging the painful spinifex in high heels. It took me half a minute to get my cosmic bearings. I hadn’t seen the comet for three days, and I wanted to know how it was doing. It was waning and its tail seemed shorter and stubbier, but it had made it across the Milky Way. Casper the Friendly Ghost was entering Centaurus, riding parallel to and just off the edge of that smoke-colored band, the zone of blistering suns.

I put my arm around Miss Halley’s shoulders, raised it so she could sight along it, and pointed out the landmarks to her: Scorpius, Saturn, the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri. She staggered slightly and looked up, eyes dancing around the black, speckled vault as she zeroed in on her namesake, the burden and crown she had so lightly assumed for all her days on earth and for all the billions who must survive the long comet night. A shriek.

”My God, it’s tiny!”

COPYRIGHT 1986 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group