Comets

For a couple more nights, the comet NEOWISE will be visible in the hours just after sunset, near the horizon to the northwest. This comet with only discovered in March, and won’t cross paths with the earth again for something like 6500 years. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for sure.

The last comet this bright to pass by the earth was the Halle-Bop comet in 1997. I remember it. I learned about it in school, and I loved astronomy. I asked my mom if she could wake me up that night so I could see it. She wasn’t happy about it. But she did it. 

I don’t remember her waking me. I remember stuffing my pajamas bottoms into my boots, pulling on a sweater, and following my mom out the side door and into the back yard. I don’t know if we carried a flashlight. We didn’t need one. The moon was bright, the ground was grey, and the sky was milky. I shivered as she brought me to the place where the tall trees along the embankment parted and we looked up at the fuzzy grey ball that I’d never seen before. I couldn’t see a tail. It looked a lot like a smudge on a photograph. 

I spent a lot of time stargazing in those days. Not that late at night, of course. But in the summers, my dad would take my brother and I out in our 12’ aluminum john boat to watch the phosphorus jump in our wake and to zoom under the stars. Those were some of my favorite times of my childhood. I’d tilt my head back and count the stars, teach myself their patterns even when I couldn’t figure out how to apply the constellation maps I’d looked up to what I was seeing. Orion was my friend, and my means of orienting myself to every other constellation I could manage. And this grey smudge was unlike anything I’d seen. It was unique. It was bright. It was a little disappointing. No bright tail, and smaller than I’d expected. And I was only going to see it once, maybe just this once in my whole life. 

And Mom had woken herself up at something like 3am in order to bring my outside to see it, and that made it brilliant, even if nothing else did. And I remember it. 

So thanks, Mom.

I’ve been sneaking looks out the window for NEOWISE for over a week. I’ve been in the yard and the driveway. One night about 10 o’clock, Tyler and I drove all over our neighborhood, looking for a high enough hill, a clear enough angle, where the street and house lights or the distant glow of a town didn’t obscure our view. I’ve been trying to figure out a way, another spot in town, but I haven’t managed to come up with one so far. Not when the comet is this close to the horizon.

I’m going to keep trying, but in case I don’t manage to see this comet, now or ever in my lifetime, I hope that you can. 

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