I was contacted today by a colleague at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who was seeking to return some photographic plates of Halley’s comet that had been obtained with the Burrell Schmidt telescope. I at first misread the email – I get so many requests for data, I initially assumed that he was looking for said plates. That sent me into a frenzy of where the heck are they? about data obtained by others well before my time as the director of the Warner & Swasey Observatory. Comet Halley last came by in 1986.
Fortunately, reading comprehension kicked in, and I realized that all I really needed to figure out was where they should go. The lower pressure version of where the heck are they? That would be the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, which has had the good sense to archive the vast treasury of astronomical plates that many observatories obtained in the pre-digital era but don’t always have the ability to preserve. But this post isn’t about that; it is just a spark to the memory.
In 1986, I was a first-year graduate student in the Princeton physics department. As such, I had at that time little more competence in observing the sky than any other physicist (practically none). Nevertheless, I traipsed out into an open field at the dark edge of town on a clear night with a pair of binoculars and a vague knowledge of what part of the sky Comet Halley should be in. How hard could it be to spot the most famous comet in history?
Impossibly hard. There was nothing to see, so far as I could find. The apparition of 1986 was a bust. This informed in me a bad attitude towards comets. There had never been a good apparition in my lifetime (all of 22 years at that point), and Halley certainly wasn’t one. I accepted that decent comets must be a rare occurrence.
Flash forward a decade to 1996, by which time I was an accomplished observer with a good working knowledge of the celestial sphere. A new comet was discovered – Hyakutake – and with it came much hype. Yeah, yeah, I’d heard it all before. Boring. Comets were always a flop.
Comet Hyakutake made a close approach to Earth in March of 1996. Its wikipedia page is pretty good, with a nice illustration of its orbit and its path on the sky as perceived from the Earth. I was working at DTM at the time, where there were lots of planetary scientists as well as a few astronomers. Someone posted an ephemeris, so despite my distrust of comets I found myself peeking at what its trajectory would be. Nevertheless, we had a long period of cloudy weather, so there was nothing to see even if there was something to see, which I expected there wasn’t.
At this time, my elder daughter Caitlyn was two years old. I made a habit of taking her out and pointing things out in the sky. We watched the sunset, the moon set after it near new moon, and the moon rise near full moon. She seemed content to listen to her old man babble about the lights in the sky. Apparently more of that sank in than I realized.
My wife Anne was teaching at Loyola, and her department chair had invited us over for a party around the vernal equinox. We enjoyed the adult company and Caitlyn put up well with it – up to a point. It got dark and we bid our farewells and headed out. We had parked across the street, and on the way out Betsy (our hostess) said “Stacy – you’re an astronomer. Where’s the comet?”
I got this pained expression. Stupid comets. But it had cleared up for the first time in nearly a week, and looking up from the front door, I could quickly orient myself on the sky. Doing so, I realize that the comet was behind the house. So I pointed up and over, towards the back yard and through the roof: “Over there.” I continued across the street to the car with the toddler cradled in my left arm, fiddling with the keys with my right hand.
We did not have a nice car: one had to insert the key manually into the door to unlock it. As I went around the car to get to the driver’s side, I was focused on this mundane task. It did not occur to me to look up in the direction I had just pointed. I felt Caitlyn stretch her arm to point at the sky, exclaiming “Fuzzy thing!”
I looked up. There is was: a big, bright, fuzzy ball. A brilliant cometary apparition, the coma easily visible even in Baltimore. My two-year old daughter spotted it and accurately classified it before I even looked up.
Comet Hyakutake was an amazing event. Not only spectacular to look at, but it drove home celestial mechanics in a visceral way. It was at this time very close to Earth (by the scale of such things). That meant it made noticeable progress in its orbit from night to night. You couldn’t see it moving just staring at it, but one night is was here, the next night it was there, the following night over there. It was skipping through the constellations at a dizzying speed for an object that takes c. 70,000 years to complete one orbit. But we were close enough that one could easily see the progress it made across the sky from night to night, if not minute to minute. If you wanted to take a picture with a telescope, you had to track the telescope to account for this – hence the star trails in the image above: the stars appear as streaks because the telescope is moving with the comet, not with the sky.
This figure (credit: Tom Ruen) shows the orbital path of Comet Huyakutake projected on the sky (constellations outlined in blue). Most of the time, the comet is far away near the aphelion of its orbit. As it fell in towards the sun, its path made annual ellipses due to the reflex motion of the Earth’s own orbit – the parallax. These grew in size until the comet came sweeping by in the month of March, 1996. Think about it: it spent tens of thousands of years spiraling down towards us, only to shoot by, transitioning well across the sky in only a couple of weeks. Celestial mechanics made visible.
Not long after Hyakutake started to fade, Comet Hale-Bopp became visible. Hale-Bopp did not pass as close to the Earth as Hyakutake, so it didn’t leap across the sky like Tom Bombadil. But Hale-Bopp was a physically larger comet. As such, it got bright and stayed bright for a long time, remaining visible to the naked eye for a record year and half. In the months after Hyakutake’s apparition, we could see Hale-Bopp chasing the sunset from the balcony of our apartment. Caitlyn and I would sit there and watch it as the twilight faded into dark. Her experience of comets had been the opposite of mine: where in my thirty years (before that point) they had been rare and disappointing, in her (by then) three years they had been common and spectacular.
The sky is full of marvels. You never know when you might get to see one.