Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comet Holmes - Towser's comet

Last night, around 11.30 pm, I spent 10 minutes lying flat on my back in the darkness of the frosty back garden, peering through binoculars at the latest comet to grace our skies; Comet Holmes.
It's an unusual comet, in that its tail is pointing away from us, so we see it end-on as a fuzzy circle, rather than the classic comet shape, such as Comet West (below).

Comets have always struck a particular chord with me. Their ghostly, spectral appearance in the sky evokes visions of the cold remoteness of outer space, whence these visitors come from. I remember comets Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997, and the way, night after night, they hung like ethereal phantoms in our night skies, and I can well believe that ancient peoples believed them to be harbingers of doom, or evil spirits (see articles here).

Below: Comet Hyakutake

Below: Comet Hale-Bopp

Comets are still mysterious objects. There are billions of them orbiting our sun, most of them way out beyond Pluto in deep interstellar space, in the Kuiper Belt or the even more remote Oort Cloud. Those that are disturbed from their orbits by whatever means, may veer inwards towards the planets, to become visible to us as their icy surface is heated by the sun, producing the jets of material which make up the characteristic tail.

Some, a few, even occasionally crash into the planets, as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 did when it hit Jupiter in 1994 (lots of links and info here). The comet was torn into several pieces by Jupiter's immense gravity when it made an initial pass-by the giant planet years previously (below).

Below: Jupiter in 1994, showing the huge scars left by the impacts of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

Of course, we know more about comets these days. We even crashed the Deep Impact probe into Comet Tempel 1, to see what happened, and analyse the material ejected. We have detailed close-up pictures of the surfaces of Tempel 1 and Wild 2. They look like the Moon.

Below: Comet Tempel 1

Below: Comet Tempel 1 being hit by the Deep Impact probe

I prefer by far the image taken of the nucleus of that most famous of comets, Halley. It's taken from a great distance, and is fuzzy and indistinct, but there's an impression of great size, and immense activity, coupled to a chilling remoteness, which no other picture of comets has ever conveyed. I find it almost terrifying in its ghost-like qualities and hints of unimaginable violence.

Below: the nucleus of Halley's Comet: impossibly remote, supremely terrifying

So what of Comet Holmes? Well, it's been reported on the national news, but has gone largely unnoticed by the public. It looks like a fuzzy patch in the night sky, and only through binoculars or a telescope does its ghostly image make itself clear.

The peak of Comet Holmes' activity, its closest approach to us, more or less coincided with Towser's death. I can't help but think, as I lie there on the cold decking, gazing at that sky-bound phantom, that Towser's spirit has somehow latched onto the comet, and is up there in the darkness, receding from us, from our lives, as the comet carries him away. Because of this, I've called the comet 'Towser's comet' and if I ever see it again, I'll think of him, of his spirit soaring through the universe.

Below: Towser's comet, seen through a telescope

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