[Rebecca Schatte, a regular contributor to CNI News, is a close personal friend of Chuck Shramek, the amateur astronomer who produced controversial images of comet Hale-Bopp in mid November, 1996. Shramek has been a professional radio broadcaster for some 20 years and involved with astronomy since he was 8 years old. Rebecca was one of the first people Chuck contacted after he took his mysterious pictures. She watched at close range as the controversy erupted into an online firestorm. This is her story of what happened.]
by Rebecca Schatte
When I met fellow Houstonian and radio newsman Chuck Shramek last February in Washington DC, he handed me his business card. It had his picture and six simple words: "I was right about the comet." We laughed about that then, but today, it just might not be a laughing matter.
On November 14 at 6:10 pm, I received a call from Chuck. As an amateur astronomer, Chuck had been following the comet Hale-Bopp since the beginning. And over the last several months, he has been imaging the comet using his 10-inch Meade telescope and CCD imaging system.
Chuck was excited. He told me he was receiving his first pictures of the comet, and there was something in the image that should not be there. He described it to me, saying it looked like Saturn in that the "object" appeared to have rings. Chuck wanted me to reconfirm that the date was actually November 14 because, according to his computer star atlas, no star or other object should have been in his field of view.
"Rebecca, what is it?" he asked me, somewhat apprehensively.
I had no idea. And in the last 16 days, I don't know if I have come any closer to knowing. But here is how the story unfolded.
Shramek put the image up on his website (paradise.pplnet.com/shram/comet.htm) and posted a message on the USENET newsgroup sci.astro.amateur, asking "What is it?" He also sent the image to a few friends and to Art Bell, asking the same question. Shramek was immediately invited to appear that night on Bell's syndicated radio program "Coast to Coast."
Neither Bell nor Shramek could anticipate the firestorm of controversy his image, and the radio program, would create.
Before the show aired, the image found its way to remote viewer Courtney Brown, who was previously scheduled to be Bell's guest that night [Nov 14-15]. By showtime, Brown had already contacted an unnamed astronomer from a top 10 university, who allegedly confirmed (for Brown, off the record) that there indeed was an anomalous object associated with the comet. This was enough for Brown. He gathered a team of scientific remote viewers to target the object. (For more information on scientific remote viewing and the reports from this team, see www.farsight.org.)
After Shramek made a brief comment on the program that evening about his image, Bell asked Brown to share the "data" from the remote viewers. That information was sensational, to say the least. While not directly validating Shramek's image, Brown's remote viewers claimed that a large, sentient object was in the vicinity of Hale-Bopp and that "it" was somehow trying to communicate with the people of Earth.
Both Shramek's unusual image and his appearance on the Art Bell program were tossed into the fire that Brown was stoking. Shramek's original question -- "What is it?" -- got lost in the confusion that followed.
Art Bell's listeners began asking questions to astronomers on the Internet. Not just any astronomers, but Alan Hale, who -- along with Thomas Bopp -- discovered the comet on July 23, 1995. Alan Hale and his webmaster Russell Sipe (www.halebopp.com) apparently declined to investigate the story. Instead, they set up a webpage, dubbed the image "SLO" (for Saturnlike Object), and proved to a lot of people that astronomers could use a better "bedside manner."
What was really in Chuck's image? He captured Comet Hale-Bopp as well as two lesser-magnitude stars (<14 magnitude) and the "object." The object does look like Saturn. It is very bright, brighter than Hale-Bopp (magnitude around 4.5). And curiously enough, in the position where the Saturnlike image is, there should be a star -- even though Chuck's MegaStar Atlas computer software did not show it. (His software, set to reference the General Star Catalog, termed the star in question a "non-star.") In point of fact, a star IS there. That star, however, known as SAO 141894, has a magnitude in only the 8 to 9 range.
The magnitudes of stars and other objects in space are a subjective matter. The lower the magnitude number, the brighter the object. With that in mind, why would an 8 to 9-magnitude star appear brighter than the comet? That, apparently, is not a simple question to answer.
If a comet has a magnitude of 4.5, and a star also, the star would appear brighter, probably much brighter. In this image, the comet has a 4.5 magnitude, and the star -- at least hypothetically -- an 8 to 9 magnitude. This star should not appear brighter than the comet.
Could the apparent brightness be caused by diffraction spikes? Maybe. But Shramek took 161 images that evening in a little more than 30 minutes. The images are of different exposure lengths, varying from one to five seconds. The five-second exposure length should make a star or object appear brighter and larger than the one-second exposure. In this case, there is no discernible difference in the images at different exposure lengths. Some astrophotographers have commented that the diffraction spikes would appear larger and brighter the longer the exposure. Again, this is not the case.
Shramek even re-imaged the area a couple of days later (there has only been one clear evening since November 14 in Houston). The star SAO 141894 appears in the image, but it appears just as an 8 to 9-magnitude star should. It brightens and becomes larger with the longer exposure lengths, and no diffraction spikes or rings are noted.
So what did my friend Chuck Shramek image? I don't know. It seems so coincidental that the "object" appears in the identical place that star SAO 141894 should be. But no one has been able to explain why his images appear the way they do. Despite many attempts and lots of erroneous information posted by supposedly professional astronomers, I don't think the mystery has been solved. It has only deepened.
All of this has had quite an effect on Chuck. For one thing, the name calling got very out of hand. Never once did any of the people attempting to discredit the story contact Chuck for information about his scope, the CCD imaging system, or his FOV [field of view]. Lots of conclusions were drawn prematurely. Lots of mistakes were made. The animosity between the varying opinion holders has run deep.
Chuck has been criticized for not going through proper channels. He has been criticized for noting anomalies with Hale Bopp. He has been called crazy, and a hoaxer. He has even been accused of posting the image for financial gain.
None of this is true. Chuck had a picture. All he wanted to know was, "What is it?"
Original file name: .CNI - HB.Shramek Story
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