Willem Lange: Waiting for a Visitor From the Oort Cloud
Some people are led around by their imaginations; others, for better or worse, by their appetites; still others by a quest for knowledge. Our film crew, here this evening on the old General Sullivan Bridge over Little Bay where the Oyster River meets the Piscataqua, is led about by a search for interesting stories. Specifically, it’s the lens in the nose of our video camera that leads us; and we follow it by day or night, in any kind of weather or climate, eschewing homes, hearths, meals and the ordinary comforts of life.
There are seven of us standing here on the arched center span truss of the Sullivan Bridge. We can do that without immediate peril because the bridge has been closed to everything but pedestrians and bicycles. It was built the year I was born, according to records, and is showing its age with flaking pale green paint, rust and gaps in its platform. Right beside it to the east, the twin spans of the newer Little Bay Bridge carry the hustling traffic of two state highways and the Spaulding Turnpike. Beyond that, the Piscataqua flows out toward darkening skies and into the Atlantic. To the west, Little Bay glows in the sunset, stretching toward the distant hills of lowland New Hampshire. The tide is flowing strongly outward, swirling the surface. Signs on the shore in the little park below us warn of dangerous currents and the hazards of swimming.
Swimming is the last thing on our minds. It’s cold! Just a bit above freezing, I’d guess, but the northwest wind, bringing in welcome clear skies and an Arctic cold front, is just a bit biting. Still, here we stand, distracting our attention by peering occasionally through binoculars and telescopes toward a space in the western sky, “about halfway between that sliver of moon and the spot where the sun is just going down,” according to our guide, John Gianforte, an electrical engineer and ardent amateur astronomer.
A low bank of dark gray clouds hovers just above the horizon. Above that, the sky is clear as a bell, and somewhere in that patch of clear sky, still invisible to us because of the brightness of the sunset, is a comet. Comet Panstarrs, as it’s called, is not one of the periodic comets, like Halley’s Comet, which are thought to originate in a disc-shaped area of minor planets out beyond the orbit of Neptune, called the Kuiper Belt, and which reappear on a fairly regular and predictable schedule. It probably originated much farther out, in the so-called Oort Cloud, a sphere of possibly 100 billion comets about 100,000 times as far as our sun from us.
If it ever returns, it won’t be in any human lifetime, or possibly even in humanity’s existence. We get one look at Panstarrs — if any at all. At the moment, it doesn’t look too promising.
Besides Gianforte, there are three other amateur star-watchers on the bridge. They all know each other, and they’re all looking for the same thing. This comet, whose course is taking it inside the orbit of Mercury, appears here in the Northern Hemisphere to be falling toward the western horizon; so there’s a relatively short time to view it, between sunset and its disappearance into the murk of the Earth’s atmosphere. Turning my back to the wind and reminding myself that I can stand the cold as long as anybody else here, I can’t help but pray that the window for viewing Panstarrs will be short.
“There it is!” cries Ted Blank, a member of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. “It’s much higher than we thought it would be. Look more up toward the moon.” My heart sinks as I realize we’ll be here longer than I’d hoped. But the excitement of spotting Panstarrs at last makes up for the discomfort.
Comets are essentially small, dirty snowballs, formed probably in the explosion that created our solar system, and composed usually of dust and frozen water held together by mutual attraction. Their appearances almost invariably cause some earthly excitement, though they’re not nowadays considered as portentous as they once were. (“When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” — Act II, Julius Caesar.) Mark Twain arrived on Earth with the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1835 and left it 75 years later with Halley’s next approach in 1910. I looked for it in 1986 and was roundly disappointed, a common experience of so-called “naked-eye observers.”
Speaking of which, you may recall the media hoopla that preceded the flyby of Comet Kohoutek in 1973. Our younger daughter, Martha, and I spent quite a bit of time shivering in the space between the drapes and the big window on the east side of the house, and saw nothing but stars. Thus I was amazed, driving south on I-91 after midnight in February of 1976, to see a huge, fiery ball on the eastern horizon over New Hampshire. It stayed there for hours, because the Earth was rotating toward it from where I was located. I found out some time later it was Comet West, bright enough to be classified a “great comet.” But there was no mention of it in any media because they’d been burned by the much ballyhooed Comet Kohoutek’s bashfulness.
Tonight we’ve got Panstarrs: not as bright as West, but a respectable fiery presence above the western horizon. Gianforte and the others photograph it through their telescopes, while one of the astronomers points his tripod-mounted binoculars at first at the Orion Nebula and then the Pleiades. First time I’ve ever seen the Pleiades so clearly. He tells me the Japanese word for the constellation is Subaru, depicted in the company logo.
Who’d ever guess that hanging out with a bunch of amateur astronomers would produce so much new information? Just the effort of saving all the new stuff has warmed up my body. But I’ll still be glad when the comet drops slowly toward invisibility on the horizon.
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.