My lifelong love affair with comets
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When I was ten, my best friend Rob and I spent most of our daylight hours preparing for our spy careers—crafting and trading coded messages, surreptitiously monitoring classmates, and identifying “secret passages” that would allow us to navigate our neighborhood without being observed. But after dark our attention turned skyward. That’s when we’d set up my telescope (a castoff generously gifted by an astronomer friend of my dad) on Rob’s front lawn to scan the heavens in the hope that we might discover something—a supernova, comet, black hole, it didn’t really matter.
Our celestial discoveries, while not Earth-changing, were personally significant. Through that telescope we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and the changing phases of Venus. We also learned to appreciate the vastness of the universe with the observation that, despite their immense size, stars never appeared larger than a pinpoint no matter how much magnification we threw at them.
To better understand what we saw, Rob and I turned to illustrated astronomy books. Pictures of planets, galaxies, and nebula amazed us, but we were particularly drawn to the comets: Arend-Roland, Ikeya–Seki, and of course the patriarch of comets, Halley’s Comet (which we learned was scheduled to return in 1986, an impossible wait that might as well have been infinity). With their glowing comas and sweeping tails, it was difficult to imagine that anything that beautiful could be real. When it came time to choose a subject for the annual California Science Fair, comets were an easy choice. And while we didn’t set the world on fire with our project presentation, Rob and I were awarded a ribbon of some color (it wasn’t blue), good enough to land us a spot in the San Joaquin County Fair.
The next milestone in my comet obsession occurred a few years later, after my family had moved to Berkeley and baseball had taken over my life. One chilly winter morning my dad woke me and urged me outside to view what I now know was Comet Bennett. Mesmerized, my dormant comet interest flamed instantly, expanding to include all things astronomy. It stayed with me through high school (when I wasn’t playing baseball); I actually entered college with an astronomy major that I stuck with for several semesters, until the (unavoidable) quantification of concepts sapped the joy from me.
While I went on to pursue other things, my affinity for astronomy continued, and comets in particular remained special. Of course with affection comes disappointment: In 1973 Kohoutek broke my heart, a failure that somewhat prepared me for Halley’s anticlimax in 1986. By the time Halley’s arrived, word had come down that it was poorly positioned for its typical display (“the worst viewing conditions in 2,000 years”), that it would be barely visible this time around (but just wait until 2061!). Nevertheless, venturing far from the city lights one moonless January night, I found great pleasure locating (with much effort) Halley’s faint smudge in Aquarius.
After many years with no naked-eye comets of note, 1996 arrived with the promise of two great comets. While cautiously optimistic, Kohoutek’s scars prevented me from getting sucked in by the media frenzy. So imagine my excitement when, in early 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly approached the brightness of Saturn, with a tail stretching more than twenty degrees (forty times the apparent width of a full moon). But as beautiful as it was, Hyakutake proved to be a mere warm-up for Comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible to the naked eye in mid-1996 and remained visible until December 1997—an unprecedented eighteen months. By spring of 1997 Hale-Bopp had become brighter than Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), its tail approaching 50 degrees. I was in comet heaven.
Things quieted considerably comet-wise after Hale-Bopp. Then, in 2007, Comet McNaught caught everyone off-guard, intensifying unexpectedly to briefly outshine Sirius, trailing a thirty-five degree, fan-shaped tail. But because of its proximity to the sun, Comet McNaught had a very small window of visibility and was easily lost in the bright twilight—it didn’t become anywhere near the media event Hale-Bopp did. I only found out about it by accident on the last day it would be easily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. With little time to prepare, I grabbed my camera and headed to the foothills east of Sacramento, where I managed to capture the image at the top of this post.
Following McNaught I vowed not to be caught off guard by a comet again. After enduring the frustration of seeing others’ images of spectacular Southern Hemisphere-only comets, my heart jumped last year when I came across a website proclaiming the approach of Comet PANSTARRS (a.k.a, C/2011 L4 in less glamorous astro-nerd parlance), discovered not by an individual, but by the Pan-STARRS automated telescope array atop Haleakala on Maui. Researching further, I learned that PANSTARRS could (fingers crossed) hang low in the western sky at magnitudes brighter than Saturn, for about a week beginning around March 10, 2013 (it will rise slowly each night, remaining visible as it fades for a few more weeks). Checking my calendar to see if I had any conflicts that week, I immediately remembered why those dates sounded so familiar—I’ll be on Maui for my workshop then! In fact, my first viewing of PANSTARRS could be almost literally in the shadow of the telescope that discovered it. It’s a sign*.
Since its discovery in June of 2011, astronomers have been monitoring PANSTARRS and updating its orbit and brightness curve—so far everything remains on track (and my crossed fingers are cramping). And as I followed PANSTARRS’ progress, rumbling of another comet could be heard, a comet that may significantly outshine PANSTARRS to achieve historic proportions: In December of this year, Comet ISON (how I long for the days when comets were people and not acronyms) may rival or surpass Hale-Bopp, perhaps even becoming bright enough to be viewed in daylight. (I have to say that you must be careful about such reports—the media seem more interested in generating audience than in actually getting things right.)
Are these comets a sure thing? Of course not. So I make no promises, except that I’ll be checking for updates daily (can you say OCD?) and will keep you posted. Chances are, if they develop as promised (hoped), you won’t have any trouble keeping track on your own (just Google their names for more information than you’ll ever need). And of course if I get any images of PANSTARRS when I’m on Maui, I’ll post them here. Stay tuned….
* Speaking of signs, Rob and I recently reconnected after many years with no contact (sadly, he didn’t go on to become a spy or astronomer either). We’re already talking about going out to see one or both of these comets together.