ANN ABOUT TOWN: The Comet Lovejoy

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015, 2:00 am
Ann Nichols

When I learned that it might be possible to see Comet Lovejoy in the night sky of East Lansing last Tuesday night, I made a plan. It seemed epic, in the context of a new calendar year, to see a ball of cosmic matter that had been in orbit for 11, 000 years. When this particular comet began to orbit, there were only a few million humans on earth, and Neolithic culture was just beginning. It is, to me, a genuine miracle that we are able to see something that those people might have seen, albeit through a haze of city lights that they could not even have imagined.

The original plan was to go someplace where there was minimal visual interference, since my neighborhood is rife with tall, old-growth trees, electric wires and streetlights. I thought maybe the field behind MacDonald Middle School would work, if there was no one sledding who might knock me into the snow. I looked at charts, I read articles, and I was ready to train my binoculars due South, to a point near Orion’s belt. I might not, without a telescope, see the comet’s tail, but I hoped desperately to find in the night sky a fuzzy greenish ball that looked like the nearby stars, but not quite.

On Tuesday night, it was incredibly cold outside, 10°with the wind chill. Our family’s sole automobile was in Grand Rapids with my husband, and the idea of walking more than a mile in the bitter cold was somewhere beyond unappealing. If I was going to see this thing, it was going to be on my own turf, working around all of the natural and man-made obstacles that surround our house. (There are, by the way, six Dark Sky Parks in the U.S., one of which is in Emmett County Michigan, north of Petoskey. Bucket List).

So I bundled up, and trudged into the back yard with my binoculars around my neck. There are many trees in our back yard, and because we are immoral backsliders who didn’t rake in the fall, the ground was covered with a thick layer of snow covering a thick layer of leaves covering God knows what. It was a very slow, crunchy walk to the southern part of the fence, where I had forgotten that the ground slopes precipitously. I may or may not have fallen down, gotten snow on the binocular lenses, and had to go back in the house to dry them with a rag.

Again I went out, this time mindful of the danger. I braced myself against the fence, pointed my binoculars south, found Orion, and realized that I could not really see through the binoculars very well with my glasses on. I took them off and put them in my coat pocket. My cell phone rang, and in order to operate it I had to remove my gloves; after a two minute, gloveless conversation my fingers were completely numb and I had to go back inside and warm them, kneeling on the floor and pressing them to a heat vent.

I am, as a general proposition, all about presence, taking time and being truly in the moment. It had become clear, however, that I was not going to have a long, meaningful astronomical observation on that particular night. It occurred to me, as I stepped for a fourth time into the breathtaking cold, that the southern sky, and Orion, and probably even the comet Lovejoy, were all visible from the street. There was the issue of street lights, but it was easier walking, and I could get a better angle up and over the trees.

Finally, I found the sweet spot I must have looked like a lunatic (pun intended) standing in the middle of the road and looking up through my binoculars, but I was past caring. Because after I found the crisp, white points of Orion’s belt, I looked up and to the left and saw something the same size as the stars, but less sharp and more…green. Just to be sure, I swung back to look at the stars again, and sure enough, they were a different matter entirely. I had actually seen an 11,000 year old comet.

Later that night, my son offered to pick me up and drive me to a friend’s house where there was a) a telescope, and b) an open field. It was very tempting, but by then it was also even colder. I was still surreptitiously warming my hands in my armpits and had put on three new pairs of warm socks. I decided that I had had my moment, I had made a connection with the natural world despite high odds, and I was going to savor, this bond with the cosmos, in my house, on my couch, under a blanket.


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