Hal Weaver isn't sure exactly when the strange messages
began appearing in his e-mail directory.
For more than a year the Hopkins astrophysicist has been busy juggling scientific studies of two bright comets, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Not to mention the deadline pressures of various other projects and proposals.
He was routinely checking his e-mail one day, when, what's this?
Messages from people who think a UFO is flying alongside comet Hale-Bopp and the government is perpetrating a huge coverup by withholding Hubble Space Telescope images?
"I received a message from a woman, trying to give me support, saying they realized I may be under some pressure [not to release the Hubble images] but that they are on my side, and I'm in their prayers," Weaver said. "I sent back just a very short note. I said, 'Please don't worry, I'm not under any pressure. No one is trying to hide anything.' " But, perhaps even that terse response was a mistake. Other messages soon followed.
"I responded back originally because I didn't realize what was going on," Weaver said. "They wanted to know why we were hiding Hubble images of the comet, and was there any information about UFOs flying around it?"
Some of the more polite inquiries were from R. Daniel Woolman, who operates an Internet site that includes an e-mail discussion group about UFOs. The group claims a membership of more than 500, and its purpose is to explore objectively UFO-related mysteries.
Woolman told Weaver he believed that information about Hale-Bopp possibly was being suppressed, and he presented the astronomer with a list of images and data that he needed to properly investigate the matter.
"He was going to analyze them and show the results to me before going public with them," Weaver said. "I just ignored it."
Other messages were not so congenial. Some angrily accused the astronomer of withholding Hubble telescope images; nothing could have been further from the truth, Weaver said.
"You say, 'Heck, if they approach me like that, I'm not going to do anything for them.' "
E-mail began flying fast and furious after an amateur astronomer from Texas claimed to have spotted a huge "Saturn-like object" following Hale-Bopp in 1996.
In November the image was posted on the Internet. Then, during a syndicated radio program, proponents of the UFO-comet connection went as far as to claim that an astronomer associated with a "top-10 university" had proof that a huge object, thought to be a spaceship, was trailing Hale-Bopp.
Professional astronomers quickly determined that the object was a star. But the story picked up momentum anyway, just as Hale-Bopp sped faster toward Earth.
Astronomer Olivier Hainaut, at the University of Hawaii, was so inundated with messages from one comet-UFO theorist that he instructed his computer to automatically delete new messages from the man, who has distributed "bulletins" about the alleged "companion" object.
When contacted by The Gazette, the man declined to answer specific questions, saying only that he does not "participate in traditional media events such as articles."
Since Nov. 15, when the image was released, Hainaut has received about 1,500 e-mail messages from people interested in the comet.
He said he has not been particularly surprised by the tone of many of the messages.
"Each comet is accompanied by its prophets, its frustrated genius, its end-of-the-world guru," Hainaut said. A woman once sent him e-mail messages claiming that the Gulf War was caused by Halley's comet. A Brazilian man sent Hainaut a letter telling him that comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with the planet Jupiter in 1994, provided evidence that his "model" for the origin of the universe was correct.
"He included a 200-page document describing that model_in Portuguese," Hainaut said. "Hale-Bopp, and its connection with the end of the millennium, is [an especially] rich one in terms of strange e-mails. One of the reasons may be that it has been around for a while."
In comparison, last year's comet Hyakutake made only a brief appearance, so people did not have enough time to organize a movement, he said.
The University of Hawaii has a Web site at http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/images/hale-bopp that debunks sensational claims of a comet companion and NASA coverup. The site includes a chronology of the events related to the UFO-comet connection, including an entry about the 39 people who committed suicide in California last month. The people, members of a group called Heaven's Gate, apparently believed that Hale-Bopp marked the arrival of a spacecraft that could carry them to a higher plane of existence.
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