Comets have fascinated Man ever since he walked upright.
Ancient civilizations viewed them as messages from the Gods, especially
angry ones if the comet had a long tail and, in turn, looked like a
sword, ready to strike the Earth.
Even people of higher intelligence saw mysticism in them. Take Mark
Twain, for example, who was born in 1835, the same year Halley’s Comet
made an appearance. The comet was set to return in 1910, and in 1909
Twain said the following:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year,
and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment
of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said,
no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in
together, they must go out together.”
Twain did die in 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet was its brightest on that return visit.
In recent history, we’ve been periodically graced with exceptional
comets, including the beautiful Hale-Bopp, which was discovered in 1995.
In 1997 the comet became naked-eye visible and remained so for 18
months, the most for any comet in recorded history.
Even so, comets that are accessible to the Average Joe, outfitted only
with his eyes or a pair of binoculars, still remain rare and fleeting.
Comet Lovejoy was discovered only this past August and is now making a transit across the skies of the Northern Hemisphere.
For two weeks now it has been naked eye visible in dark sky locations.
But, as mentioned in a previous column, that does not mean Niagara
County. Even though our rural residents think they have starry skies,
they don’t. Light pollution from all our homes, the cities of Lockport,
Niagara Falls, and Toronto corrupt our night time skies and we see only a
fraction of what we should...a very small fraction. If we were to see
Comet Lovejoy with the naked eye in New York State, we’d have to be in
southern Allegany County or the Adirondacks.
But, that doesn’t mean we are out of luck. With even a simple pair of
binoculars you will be able to see Lovejoy in the Niagara County skies.
The best time to look is between 10:00 and midnight, and preferably on a
day when the moon’s light has waned as it will make the sighting
slightly difficult. We won’t have a New Moon (“no moon”) until the 20th
To find the attractive comet -- which will appear as a bright green fuzz
ball -- this week look in the sky between the constellations of Orion
and Eridanus (see the accompanying star chart). Next week, look between
Orion and Cetus. During the moon-free week around the 20th, look between
Taurus and Aries. During the last week of January, it will be between
Perseus and Pegasus.
While conditions won’t be perfect next week with the full moon, we have
at least two weeks, maybe even as many as three, thereafter before the
comet will disappear from the view of field glasses.
Take advantage of that and savor the sight. We “backyard astronomers”
don’t often get a chance to see comets. We might not have another chance
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he will be outside freezing
trying to see Comet Lovejoy later this month. Follow him on Twitter
@bobconfer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.