Tout humans' fascination with comets
(The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford-area residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.)
Dear friends of the McCarthy Observatory:
Our thanks to all the people who have scheduled visits to observe the heavens this winter for their patience and understanding as the weather has forced many postponements.
It has been challenging, but we have been able to accommodate almost every group, and have appreciated groups being flexible in planning new dates... some many times.
Patience is a virtue in astronomy, for sure. But the rewards are always great.
The greatest viewing reward this year is likely to be two comets, one of potentially magnificent brightness and interest late in the year.
The observatory staff has been successful in tracking this comet on three occasions, even though it is still very dim and distant.
It is now located in the vicinity of Castor in the constellation Gemini. You can read about these comets in the Galactic Observer by checking the observatory website at www.mccarthyobservatory.org.
We volunteers love comets because today they spur such great interest in astronomy from people of all ages. That has not always been the case, of course.
Comets have been fascinating since ancient times, but in a far different sense. They were usually seen as portents from the gods... telling of doom, disaster or some other pending calamity.
And their sword-like appearance surely was a portent for war... especially by leaders who had the propensity to wage war.
So comets were handy tools for stirring up populations until amazingly recently in history.
Even our beloved Halley's Comet had been blamed for the Black Death, and had previously actually been excommunicated, as an instrument of the devil.
That's humorous for us today, but not so funny in centuries past. Science can make a real difference.
Today we know future generations will be blessed with comets -- there are about 200 "short period" comets (like Halley's) that we can predict with accuracy.
There is also an enormous reservoir estimated to contain as many as a trillion comets, in a sphere at the extremes of the solar system. Called the Oort Cloud, this sphere is believed to be about 10 trillion miles across, and it is from that source that this year's comets are believed to originate.
There have been nearly 3,000 comets believed to be from the Oort Cloud that have graced our skies since modern science has tracked such things. We are hoping this year's will be the most memorable.
And we hope no future ones create hazards to future generations. We shall keep you posted.
A final note -- there are still several seats available in the winter/spring adult education astronomy class beginning Wednesday, Feb. 27.
Enroll through the New Milford Adult Education program. It will be held at the observatory.
The telescopes are used a great deal, and we promise it to be very interesting and non-technical.
The volunteer staff