Sunday, December 10, 2023

Eye on Life

Broad interest online magazine

Looking Up

False expectations?

Social media is awash with bold headlines intended to stir up public interest in things astronomical. The ‘rare green comet’ currently visiting our solar system could be taken to mean that a green comet is rare, or the comet itself is a rare visitor. It has been established that the comet is rare because it last came by 50 000 years ago, and there is no guarantee that there will ever be another appearance, as the orbit is a bit tricky to pinpoint. Many comets are green, but this again is misleading. The human eye cannot identify colour at such vast distances, and it is only through astrophotography or immensely powerful telescopes that we are able to enjoy the striking images of the objects that make up the universe. It comes as rather a disappointment to the first-time observer to find that a galaxy is a fuzzy blob, nebulas are pretty much invisible and a full moon obliterates everything.

But don’t be disheartened. The very fact that we can see anything at all is a marvel, soothing to the soul when observed in silence, and a great way of grounding ourselves as to the meaning of life. A good pair of binoculars can be a great way to start your astronomical adventures, and the ‘rare green comet’ will actually be faintly visible through binoculars and telescopes in the northern sky, rising higher each night in a line from the star Capella (twinkling red and blue a bit above the horizon) up to the red planet, Mars, currently to the left of Taurus and Orion. The graphic below gives the positions and will certainly make it easy to find. Should you be unfamiliar with the night sky, a great app is SkySafari.

Good luck with your viewing! I will be out there every (cloudless) night for the next week and hope I don’t disgrace myself by failing to observe. As I write this, the southeaster is pushing the clouds up from Cape Point, and tonight is full moon.

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