Twenty years ago, on July 23, 1995, astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp independently discovered the comet that would end up bearing their names. Hale-Bopp, officially C/1995 O1, was cruising by Jupiter, making it one the most distant comets spotted by amateurs. But it refused to keep it’s distance.
When it blazed into view on Earth from early 1996 to September 1997 — its icy nucleus and gassy tail bright enough to be seen with the naked eye — Hale-Bopp became the first comet to win the young Internet’s attention. (Hale-Bopp would not be the last, as the saga of the Philae lander demonstrates.) The comet also, unfortunately, caught the eye of another group: the cult of Heaven’s Gate.
Heaven’s Gate, led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, believed the Earth was going to be recycled. To avoid this apocalyptic plowing under, the group committed mass suicide in March 1997, believing their spirits would be able to board a UFO hiding in Hale-Bopp’s tail. The details of the deaths were as perplexing as they were heartbreaking: Members ate phenobarbital mixed in apple sauce and chased it with vodka while wearing fresh Nikes and carrying $5.75 in their pockets. . . .