COMET PanSTARR

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(click to enlarge)

If you get the chance, and the weather gives you a clear evening, you may want to scan the orange dusk to the west at twilight, and see if you can glimpse Comet PanSTARR, which has already passed us at a considerable distance and is whizzing around the sun before rocketing back out to the cold depths of remote space from whence it came.

Comets neither whiz nor rocket, and to lovers of fireworks are rather boring. They just sit there, a vague glow like a bit of fuzz, with a pinprick of light at their head.  In order to get properly excited you have to think of them as an omen, a portent of change.  You have to imagine living back in the times when a night sky was full of mystery, but held stars you expected, and then there was suddenly this unexpected thing.  What might it mean?

A Norman Conquest?  That happened with a comet in the skies over England.

Also comets can do unexpected things.

Back in 1973 Comet Kohoutek had already passed the sun and started heading away, and had been a big disappointment to those who expected it to be very big and bright.  My younger brother and I worked a late shift together, and stayed up even later because we were young and wild, and as we headed home the first tints of dawn began to gentle the stark night to the east, so we decided to see if we could see the tiny comet before it was gone.

All we could see was a strange ray of light rising up in the east, like a sunbeam ahead of its time.  Then a small but bright star rose at the bottom of the beam, along with all the other morning stars, and only then did we realize the beam belonged to the comet.

Something happened to Comet Kohoutek that made it unexpectedly brighten. Perhaps its surface vaporized when it got close to the sun.  In any case, it got much brighter right when people stopped looking, and by the time the news made the papers and people were alerted, several days had passed and it was dimmer again. 

In any case, if you get a chance to gaze west, and a good twilight, keep your eyes peeled.

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