Everything there is to say about seeing comets


This is a good time to share tips with people about how to spot comets. You might protest there’s no visible comets in the sky. We had NEOWISE hanging out there for a couple weeks. That there’s no comet to see is no reason you can’t try anyway. Most of the time there’s no comet anyway. Every couple years the world’s astronomers all feel lonely. So they go telling people, “Oh, hey, comet D/2495 Q1 Rococo-Compsognathus is passing by the sun for the first time since Pangaea was a thing! The vapor trail will wrap over a thousand degrees of sky, looping almost three times from horizon to horizon! At its peak it could be up to 36 times as bright as setting your face on fire!” That “up to” covers a lot of possibilities.

Then they find a field or the top of a building, scatter some telescopes around, and wait for the crowds to come rolling in. I’m not saying it’s a sinister conspiracy. At heart, it’s a conspiracy to get strangers to ask them about their Cassegrain reflector. They’ve spent a lot of time learning the word “catadioptric” and you understand their wanting to do something with it. The word means “cat of the day of the ptrics”. The day of ptrics is April Fool’s or Halloween, depending on context.

Astronomers can’t help explaining things like this. They grew up as nerds. And as nerds, we hated being in school. We liked the learning part. It’s just we hated having to be around other people teaching stuff. This is why now that we’re out of it, we spend all our time teaching other people stuff. This is also why nerds are always angry with each other over declarations of things like “this was a good episode of a TV show”.

In principle there’s just a few things you need to study the night sky, among them:

1. Night.
2. Sky.
3. You (very important).

The ‘sky’ and the ‘you’ are pretty easy for you to come up with. The night could be hard. You can tell it’s night by how vividly you remember every relationship you ever screwed up by saying one wrong thing.

To get to see anything in the sky you’ll want a good dark area. This can be found by going into the basement without turning on the lights, but there are house centipedes down there. Out to the field it is, then! This is a good way to discover how badly your town is light-polluted. There’s an excellent chance that ten miles outside of town you can still read this week’s updated privacy policy from your Discover card.

What you want is a good quality dark, but that’s hard to come by. The great dark mines of the upper midwest were exhausted by the 1920s and we’ve had to make do with reclaimed and processed dark since then. Really it’s easier to go gather around the astronomers and let them ask you if you can name the nearest star to Earth. This takes you to the astronomers, yes, but they know where it’s dark enough you can’t see the bats.

Out in the field you get to see families who aren’t particularly amateur astronomers, trying hard to get anyone else to look at the same thing. “Do you see that star?” “The red one?” “Stars aren’t red!” “Then why is it red?” “You must be looking at an airplane.” “One of those famous stationary airplanes you see all the time.” Tempers grow short. You get packs of people, one pointing up at a tree. “Look! Is that Cassiopeia?” “YOU’RE Cassiopeia!” responds someone who’s fed up with how much fun everyone else had learning there’s a constellation called Puppis, the Poop Deck. Someone in the group has a solid memory that you just “arc to Arcturus”, but not where you arc from or why you want Arcturus in the first place. You want Arcturus because it’s the most prominent star in the constellation of Arctoo. The astronomers could explain that, if you don’t accidentally get them explaining what a Dobsonian telescope is. It is a telescope made by Dob and Sons, of Telescope Alley in London.

Anyway the most amazing thing you can learn is that there are obsolete constellations, just like if stars were recorded on VHS tapes or something. Also that one was called Turdus Solitarius as if astronomers weren’t all twelve-year-old boys.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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