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Rockets to collect data on Hale-Bopp comet

Scientists are firing four arrow-like rockets beyond the outer reaches of the atmosphere to help solve the mysteries of the Hale-Bopp comet and possibly yield clues about the birth of the universe.

Each carrying a different set of instruments, the suborbital rockets set for launch over the next two weeks will collect data on the comet's composition, including gas emissions and dust particles, which could tell scientists Hale-Bopp's age and origin. The first was to be launched Monday night.

Telescopic equipment that can provide a clearer picture than possible from Earth are designed to parachute back onto the missile range shortly after takeoff.

The rockets won't reach orbit _ the highest will only go 240 miles high and provide only 5 minutes of data _ but scientists hope the encounter with Hale-Bopp will bring back information they never could get otherwise.

"When we're studying the comets like this, we're getting some real clues about what conditions were like at the formation of the universe. It's like a time machine going back 4{-billion years," said Alan Hale, one of two men who discovered the comet and who was to be on hand for the launch Monday.

Hale-Bopp, roughly three to four times bigger than Halley's comet, is one of the largest comets ever cataloged, with a tail estimated at 10-million to 20-million miles in length. It last passed Earth about 4,000 years ago.

If the telescopic images do show that the comet contains the noble gases neon and argon, they could help determine where and when the comet was formed because the gases only form under certain conditions, said James Green, the University of Colorado astronomer conducting the experiment.

Green said it could take several months to analyze data from the experiment, which he said would provide only a small piece of the total universe puzzle.

"It is not going to happen in our lifetime that we are going to get the final answer," said Green. "But we are making progress."

Each experiment is loaded on a two-stage Black Brant sounding rocket, a slender craft with guidance fins that resemble the tail of a dart. The launches cost about $1-million each.

The NASA-financed launches continue Tuesday with an experiment by the University of Wisconsin to examine dust particles. The San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute will launch a rocket Saturday, and Johns Hopkins University will follow April 5.

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