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.