They say a comet is an omen. In ancient times, because of the ‘disturbance’ it caused in the night sky, the omen it suggested was considered to be bad. Comets were thought to be sent by the gods as warnings and were associated with the death of kings and famous people or ironically, plagues. I wish to believe that this new comet in the night sky, Neowise, is maybe just the opposite. I choose to think it is a sign of the eventual end to this Covid plague and the hope for a vaccine.
Yesterday gave us one of those rare nights, that if you are fortunate enough to be away from the light pollution of the larger cities, you get to witness the millions of stars painting their spectacular light show across the canvas of the night sky. Last night, I was one of those fortunate few. My grandchildren and I are vacationing with my wife and daughter in the northern woods of Wisconsin, far from the city lights. I was excited, since having tried for multiple nights to view the comet back home in Madison, I had yet to spot it in the nighttime sky. This was going to be my best chance.
We have a cottage located in the southeast corner of our lake. With a heavy tree line, we were concerned that we would not be able to see low enough to the horizon where Neowise would be located. The time grew later and the sky grew darker. We ventured down to our pier where we found a crystal clear sky and no moon. Perfect viewing weather. As we looked to the northwest, we easily spotted the Big Dipper. Our Google search told us that on this night we would locate the comet straight below the lowest star of the Big Dipper, half way between that bottom star and the horizon. As we peered into the dark sky, we saw our view seemingly blocked by a large stand of trees. But then, as we moved our gaze downward, we saw through an opening in the branches what looked like a smudge of white against the backdrop of the dark sky. Grabbing the binoculars, my daughter exclaimed breathlessly, that she could see it. I and my grandson anxiously awaited our turn. When she finally relinquished the binoculars and our turns came, the comet did not disappoint. We stared in awe at the majesty of Neowise.
The head of the comet, clearly visible through the binoculars, appeared as a soft, fuzzy object and there, spread out in this huge fan shaped cloud of white, was its tail. The comet was so distinctly different and so much larger than anything else in the sky, that it simply grabbed your attention and made it impossible to look away. No wonder that those ancients were so awed and at the same time, fearful of a comet’s appearance. We explained to my grandson Jackson, what a unique experience viewing this comet afforded him. It would be another forty two years before another comet, Halley’s, would be back in our skies. I didn’t tell him, but I sincerely doubt that I will be around to see that event.
I have been fortunate to have viewed three comets before this latest one and, more than likely, my last. I saw, Comet Kahoutek in 1973, Halley’s comet in 1986, and Hale-Bopp in 1997. Though there are generally comets somewhere in our night skies at any time, most are not visible with the naked eye or do not display much of their tail. The tail is often pointed away from us or is simply to small to view. The three comets I mentioned, were visible and at least expected to put on a show. Truthfully, until my viewing last night, they were unimpressive with my meager viewing equipment. That is why last night’s viewing of Neowise has so inspired me. Knowing that I have no known great comets to look forward to, seeing Neowise in all its glory was so important.
Unlike the ancients, I am choosing this comet to be a good omen. I believe that 2020 is destined to go down as the year of the plague and that it will be one we all want to forget. Let’s for a moment believe that the appearance of the comet is telling us of better days ahead. Let’s, knowing that we have a forty-two year wait, not waste any of our days and years ahead. If Covid taught us anything, it is to realize the importance of the people around us, of our dependence on each other and of our need to take care of not only ourselves, but of humanity in general. Neowise can be a beacon showing us our way forward and an inspiration to keep going. Just as the comet unwaveringly follows its path, so we need to find our path, the path of caring for the things that matter.
Take some time, grab a pair of binoculars, get away from the confusion of the urban lights and go find the comet. Stare at it. Revel in its majesty. View it against the backdrop of a starry ski and realize how vast the universe is and how very fortunate we all are to have this space, this earth, this planet …… each other. Just maybe we can each be our own comet, lighting up our little space and together, we can light up the world. Just as the comet dazzles the night sky, so too can we dazzle the world, our world.
Go be a comet!