Image: International Space Station crew members captured this view of Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) above Earth July 5, 2020. [Courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center]
This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 (vol. 49, no. 3) issue of Mercury magazine, an ASP members-only quarterly publication.
I have not been out of my house very much these days. Aside from essential trips to the grocery store and dog walks, I think I have left the house about a dozen times since San Francisco issued its first COVID-19 “Shelter in Place” order on March 17. One of those rare times happened in mid-summer. My husband and I decided to brave the pandemic-mired world to take a peek at Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Our two greyhounds looked at us incredulously as we put on our shoes and made our way out the front door and into the dead of night without them. These days, putting on shoes always signals a walk. What was going on? Were we leaving and never coming back? I don’t think I have ever seen Waldo and Roxie look so worried.
We found a large open field near our home. Armed with our smartphones and a number of different stargazing apps, we located the spot above the northwestern horizon. Using the bowl of the Big Dipper as our guide, our eyes could just make out the fuzzy nucleus of the comet. Once our eyes became adapted to the dark, the tail appeared. With the unaided eye, the comet was difficult to find. While we don’t live in San Francisco itself and don’t have to deal with city lights, we also don’t live in an area with especially dark skies. Binoculars helped a lot, and we both marveled the length of Comet NEOWISE’s arching, dusty tail.
But then I put the binoculars away. I just stood in the middle of the empty field and looked up at the night sky. The familiar stars and constellations were all where they should be — where they always have been every other time I’ve looked up. Despite the stress, chaos, uncertainly, and worry in the world they watch over, the vault of heaven is a constant. Waldo and Roxie worry we won’t return from star gazing, but we will. My husband and I worry our universe will never be the same, but in the most fundamental way, it will all still be there when the chaos ends. The familiar stars and constellations reassure me of that.
I find myself thinking a lot about one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. I share it here in hopes you enjoy it as much as I do. Stay well and keep looking up.
On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations
You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves —
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drought will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn’t reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.
Linda Shore is the Chief Executive Officer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Read more articles by Linda.