Comets and the Thrill of Freezing in the Dark

Terry LovejoyAs I get older, I find that my interests turn more and more to “fun” things like astronomy. When I was younger, I wasn’t as interested in it. But being submerged in politics all the time, it’s very relaxing to read about stuff where facts actually matter. Indeed, my interest has been so much increased that I’m doing some work on a pulsar model I published (pdf) 25 years ago. I think I made some errors and I have an idea for improving the overall model. (For the record, I always think I made some errors in everything I’ve published.) Regardless, I’m not doing it for any reason other than that it is fun.

Speaking of people doing astronomy just for fun, meet Terry Lovejoy. He is part of a long line of great amateur astronomers who have made important contributions to the science. In fact, it often seems to me that we ought to hold amateur endeavors in higher regard than professional ones. I mean, amateurs aren’t even being paid. But it does highlight the great lie of economics that everything is about financial incentives. Oh, there the politics come back in! Let’s get back to the pure joy of scientific discovery.

Last August, Lovejoy discovered his fifth comet: C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). I find comets fascinating. Their likely importance in the delivery of water and even organic matter to the planets makes my mind marvel. At the same time, the idea that one of these buggers could slam into the earth and kill us all has a wonderful horror movie appeal. And I’m very pleased that people like Lovejoy are out there discovering comets when they are barely visible at magnitude 15. Polaris has a magnitude of 2, and nothing with a magnitude of 7 or more is visible with the naked eye. At its brightest, C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) will have a magnitude between 4 and 5. That will be in two weeks.

On 7 January, the comet will make its closest approach to us — about 40 million miles away. But it won’t be at its brightest then. It will be brighter when it gets closer to the sun. But right now, you ought to be able to see it — just barely. Of course, you won’t be able to see it where I live. My neighborhood is swimming in light. It really is an abomination. But I’m going to take a long walk tonight and see if I can get far enough away to see it with some binoculars.

Finding it should not be hard. It is swinging by Orion. Right now it is at just below and to the right of his right foot. Here’s a star chart from Sky and Telescope:

C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) Path - Sky and Telescope

But I should warn you: going out to see a comet is like going to see a rock concert — better in theory than in practice. Watching a DVD of a concert is generally much more fun with far better sound and not standing on a concrete floor being trampled by people pretending that they know the song based on the first three notes. I’ve seen a few comets in my day, including the stupendously disappointing 1986 appearance of Halley’s Comet. My main memory of all comet sightings is that of being cold.

Be that as it may, it is important to suffer the discomfort and disappointment of great events. And the chance to see C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is a once in a hundred lifetimes experience, since this comet doesn’t visit very often — just once every ten thousand years or so. So be a good neighbor: run outside, look up at Orion, and wave hello to C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). That way, when your grandchildren ask you what it was like to see the comet, you can say, “All I remember is that I was cold.”

Or you could cheat and watch this video from 29 December:

But it isn’t the same. I’m not even chilly.

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