Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A tough few weeks. My parents' health problems are slowly beginning to rear their heads. The dogs of mortality nipping at my heels.


Went out with the big, dumb telescope and a few cans of beer in a cooler to see Comet Lulin last night, as it passed as close to the Earth as it's ever gonna get. Frankly, there's not much to get too excited about, visually. It's a big, green, fuzzy blob, with no real detail (neither of it's two tails visible, for instance).

The fun comes in when you imagine what's happening out there, send your mind out there to hang out with the comet awhile. The thing is leaving debris of rock and ice in one direction, and ionized gas is being boiled off by the sun in the other direction (thus the two tails). It is going impossibly fast, on it's way out of our neighborhood and back into the far cold of...wait for it...the Oort Cloud.

It will return in 5 million years.

That's a big orbit.

Huge forces at work in empty spaces, seen from impossible distances.

A feeling quite similar to being in church. Back when I was a kid, and went to church. And had those kind of feelings about church. Of course, in a church, you aren't allowed to bring beer. So that's a plus.

It was a clear night, and warm. Other stuff was out in the sky as well. Spent quite a bit of time on Saturn, as it was close to the comet. What a pretty sight. The Orion Nebula was in full glory - I've never seen it in this much detail before. Looked for, but did not find, the Horsehead Nebula. Found the Andromeda Galaxy, big and bright but as it was low in the sky and guttering in the remnants of the city glare, no real detail. Still, it is a jewel in the sky.

Here's a picture of the comet from NASA's Pic of the Day. I didn't take it. But it shows the two tails in all their glory. Lulin will be bright for a few more days. Go out and look for it. Send your mind out there for awhile. Imagine you're in church.


Hilary said...

So sorry to hear that your parents are not well. Sending best thoughts your way.

Very cool photo. I always learn a little bit of something interesting here. Thanks for that.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

My regards to the folks, your pa in particular. Was glad to meet him.

What makes Lulin green, Mr. Wizard?

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your parents. My thoughts and prayers are with them, and you.

You hit most of my favorites here! Saturn, the Orion Nebula... you aren't going to see the Horsehead Nebula from town, you're going to have to go out into the wilds of nature with a deep sky scope and some seriuos prayer before you get that one in your lens.
But you can get it.

It is absolutely astounding, this universe that we call home, isn't it? It always amazes me.

Thank you for the perspective.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

meno said...

There's nothing like looking into the vastness of the night sky for putting things in perspective.

Some people don't like it, but it comforts me.

Irrelephant said...

Nice one, old bean. Very nice. But you mean you never nipped the sacrificial wine? Shame on you!

My very best wishes to the parents for a swift and easy recovery.

Noel said...

This was such a beautiful post. The place of faith and spirituality with the concreteness of science is always a strong approach to such weighty issues.

Any reason why the Oort Cloud shows up so infrequently?

Clowncar said...

Yeah, the pic shows those 2 tails pretty well. Thanks for your thoughts.

Yours too, E. Cyanogen gas causes the green. Plus, it's poisonous! Green death gas from space.

Scarlett, I had the 8" scope, and was out in a state park away from city lights, but still couldn't find the horsehead. Or the Flame Nebula just above it. Sigh....

Meno, the night sky is one of the most comforting things I know. I can't imagine it making people feel inconsequential. It's lends the everyday world mystery and magic.

I nipped me some sacrificial Miller Lights, Irr. This is your blood - and now it's less filling! Thanks for your thoughts.

Noel, the Oort Cloud is more of a metaphor about orbital mechanics, how simple rules of physics (Kepler's 3 laws) can lead to wildly intricate structures.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

You're pulling my leg.

Clowncar said...

Nope, Eric.

It a cyanide-ish chemical. Glows green. Certain to kill you if you breathed a bunch of it.

The closer you look, the weirder it gets.