WHEN comet C/1995 Ol (Hale-Bopp) was discovered1, at a distance of seven astronomical units from the Sun, it was more than one hundred times brighter than comet Halley at the same distance. A comet's brightness is derived from the reflection of sunlight from dust grains driven away from the nucleus by the sublimation of volatile ices. Near the Sun, sublimation of water ice (a main constituent of comet nuclei) is the source of cometary activity; but at its current heliocentric distance, Hale-Bopp is too cold for this process to operate. Other comets have shown activity at large distances2, and in the case of comet Schwassmann-Wachmann1, carbon monoxide has been detected in quantities sufficient to generate its observed coma3,4. Here we report the detection of CO emission from Hale-Bopp, at levels indicating a very large rate of outgassing. Several other volatile species were searched for, but not detected. Sublimation of CO therefore appears to be responsible for the present activity of this comet, and we anticipate that future observations will reveal the onset of sublimation of other volatile species as the comet continues its present journey towards the Sun.