Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.—Immanuel Kant
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and you’ve got a clear night sky, it’s a very good time to cast your gaze upwards.
Comet Lovejoy is a beautiful sight in the sky. In a dark location, you can just make out a smudge of light. With binoculars, you can see a bit more of the comet’s structure. With a basic telescope you’re in for a treat. You won’t match the detail of an astrophoto, but you’re in for something much bigger.
The comet was first spotted in August 2014 by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer in Queensland. It’s Lovejoy’s second comet discovery; amazingly he found both using a reasonably basic backyard telescope. (For those who care, it’s an 8” Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain worth about as much as a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar.) The comet is now visible in the North, but don’t waste any time. Comets have this bad habit of orbiting the sun, and disappearing from our sight in a big hurry.
Get yourself outside and find Orion. Move up and to the right until you see a cluster of stars called the Pleiades (7 sisters or Subaru). Keep moving to the right and up and you should find the blob that is Comet Lovejoy. Whether with your naked eye, binoculars or a telescope (is there a public observatory near your home?) take a moment to think about what you are actually seeing. You are gazing into a large ball of dust, rocks and ice as it hurtles through empty space on its way around the sun.
You, a living and breathing creature, hardly a speck on a blue marble careening around the sun, are capturing a moment of time, watching light reflecting of a big ball of dirt. And not just any dirt. We have good reason to believe that comets are full of the chemicals that make the basic building blocks of life. Some scientists have speculated that comets are the Johnny Appleseeds of the universe, wandering about, dropping the seeds of life whenever they bump into something solid. Sometimes the seeds land in fertile soils and life begins; most of the time they hit barren lands where nothing ever will grow. And you’re watching it.
If you want a great picture, go to the internet.
If you want to move your heart, go find Comet Lovejoy. Remember that you are looking at the stuff of life as it hurtles through space, flying Mother Nature’s silver seeds to a new home.