Under the Wire
Comet NEOWISE and the long view
July 22, 2020
Extraordinary is the word of the week when describing a celestial visitor to our corner of the galaxy. It references Comet NEOWISE, a three-mile wide once-in-6,500 year visitor that is a delight to those who take time to find it. There have been numerous opportunities the last several years to observe periodic comets that visit from time to time. Comet NEOWISE, however, probably won’t recognize earth and its inhabitants upon its next return. At most, there may be some obscure reference to the time period around 2020 when it last encroached into our solar system. Humanity might even die off between now and then given our propensity to politicize problems to death instead of dealing with reality.
For the benefit of those who seldom look skyward on a dark starry night, the comet was recently seen below the big dipper by some 20 degrees or so. Degrees are easy to measure; a fist held at arm’s length is approximately 10 degrees. An open fist measuring the distance between the outspread tips of thumb and little finger constitutes around 25 degrees. NEOWISE has a naked eye tail spanning about 17 degrees, though it depends on a person’s visual acuity and atmospheric conditions.
What’s the big deal about a comet? It doesn’t impact what happens in our daily lives. It doesn’t make the virus concerns go away, or magically create a cure. It doesn’t ease anyone’s financial distress in the moment, or suddenly make people get along with each other. In fact one could argue that it is a meaningless event that is beyond our ability to alter in any way, so why bother at all? The very reason you should pay attention to it is simply the fact that you’ve never seen it before and will never see it again, all in the span of a few short days.
The experience ranks right up there with seeing Saturn’s rings for the first time through a telescope, or counting the moons of Jupiter as they march across the face of the solar system’s largest planet. Each Autumn’s first view of the Horsehead Nebula in Orion elicits ooohs and aaahs, even from seasoned observers. The closest galaxy to our own, Andromeda or M31, is a mind-boggling experience in its own right. To imagine the sheer numbers of galaxies within the universe is an astounding exercise. There are new estimates of two trillion galaxies in the visible universe, each containing billions of suns (400 billion or more just within our Milky Way galaxy) and ten times more total planets, some teeming with life if scientific hypotheses ring true.
To ponder the night sky is to come face-to-face with creator and created. It is a religious experience of no small significance. As vast as the universe is, the most important part of it all at any one time is the fact that we are present, miniscule specks in an ocean of improbable numbers and even more improbable space. We have been given guardianship over this tiny blue gem in the dark expanse. I’d like to think that by the time NEOWISE returns, humanity will have evolved beyond its selfish expressions of ‘me first,’ and grown to understand that we all must take responsibility for our sins of omission, commission, and outright complacency when it comes to where we live. If you need reinforcement, now is the perfect time. Comet NEOWISE, and other astonishments, awaits your viewing.