I have been interested in comets since I was a kid, going back to a series of comet-related events when I was in elementary school.
- When I was in second grade, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke into fragments and smashed into Jupiter. Second-grade me was deeply impressed.
- When I was in fourth grade, Comet Hyakutake buzzed path Earth, bright enough to be clearly visible with the naked eye at night.
- When I was fifth grade, Comet Hale-Bopp passed by, even brighter. I remember being able to see it through the kitchen windows while we ate dinner. Two years in a row of naked-eye comets was very unusual.
- Fifth grade was also the year I studied comets for my independent research project for gifted class.
- In sixth grade, I broke my arm. This is significant because that was the year I met Caroline Shoemaker of Shoemaker-Levy 9, and she signed my cast. (I had already met David Levy.)
What surprises me is when I mention Shoemaker-Levy 9 or Hale-Bopp to other people my age and they have no idea what I’m talking about. They were such a big deal in my family! What do you mean you weren’t watching comet fragments hitting Jupiter on CNN when you were in second grade? I have to remind myself that most people’s parents are not amateur astronomy enthusiasts and most second-graders do not watch CNN. (My parents also kept me home from school one day in second grade to watch an annular solar eclipse.)
I had been looking at the photos of Comet Pan-STARRS (named for the telescope array that discovered it) that people in the southern hemisphere had been taking for weeks. Finally this past week it arrived in the skies of the northern hemisphere, where it would only be visible for a short time before getting too close to the sun, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Tuesday night was supposed to be the best night to see it and we had clouds and snow showers.
Wednesday morning, though, I woke up to clear sunny skies.
Sunset was at 7:00 pm. I was working until 7:30, which worked out perfectly, because the short window when it would be dark enough to see the comet before it set in the west was supposed to start about half an hour after sunset. At 7:30 I closed the building and booked it to the sledding hill, the best place to get a clear view of the horizon, carrying my binoculars and camera. My friend Leanna was already waiting for me, sliding down the hillside on a plastic disc sled to pass the time. I got a text from my roommate as I arrived on the hill – “It’s not dark yet. You sure this is the right time?” “Yep. Come now. Bring binoculars.”
Over and over I scanned the area of sky between the crescent moon and the horizon as the sky slowly darkened. No comet. No comet. Finally, around 7:45, I spotted it. “There it is! I see a dim fuzzy dot! Right above the trees!” Only astronomy people get so excited about dim fuzzy dots. Once we knew exactly where it was, though, we could spot it even without our binoculars. As it got a bit darker, with the binoculars we could make out the fuzzy tail streaking up and to the left.
Two comet facts: first, no matter whether the comet is coming or going, the tail always points away from the sun. It’s formed when the comet arrives in the inner solar system, as the sun vaporizes and blows away bits of it. Second, Halley’s Comet, which returns to the inner solar system every 76 years, is the exception rather than the rule. Most slingshot back out to the solar system’s outer reaches and don’t return for millennia, if ever.
We enjoyed the view for a few more minutes as Pan-STARRS slid into the band of haze above the horizon. A Great Horned Owl called in the distance. It was getting colder. Finally we trudged back down the snowy hill and went home.