"Comet Visible Here Tonight," read the newspaper headline. Iras-Araki-Alcock was coming closer to Earth than any comet had in 200 years, and an astronomer at Johns Hopkins was saying we'd actually be able to see a comet this time. A lifetime ambition was about to be realized.
Here was a chance to see one of those mysterious balls of snow, dust and ice that streak across the sky with gaseous tails thousands of miles long, bearing secrets that might tell us something about the origin of the universe.
I arrived home Tuesday night, ready for the comet search. My husband, who lived with me through the disappointment of Kohoutek, had already scouted the territory. "North," he said, standing in the living room and pointing toward the picture window, "is in that direction. Your best shot is to go out front and look toward the top of the street."
We had a news story and a magazine article and between the two of them, I was convinced I could find my way around the sky and spot the comet. When darkness fell, we trooped outside, children in tow, ready to explore the mysteries of the universe. "Where's the ball of light," asked my daughter, the 3-year-old, looking expectantly in the sky.
I scanned the heavens. Nothing. "We don't know," I said.
Back we went into the living room for the published maps. Clearly, this wasn't going to be easy. The first mystery of the universe we had to solve was the whereabouts of the Big Dipper. It's been a while since any of us had been star-gazing, but by 9 o'clock or so we were back outside, armed with the newspaper chart and a flashlight, searching the sky. At last we located the Big Dipper and then the Little Dipper. Could the comet be far behind?
Before long, we spotted a tiny white dot moving across the sky. It had to be the comet. My son the 7-year-old rushed inside the house to get Becky, the college student who lives with us and helps take care of the children. She came out on the deck and took the binoculars. She looked at the sky.
"That's an airplane," she said.
"You're kidding," I said.
At 10 p.m., we went back out on the deck again. By this time, the children were starting to have doubts about (1) the comet and (2) their mother.
We succeeded in finding the Big Dipper within seconds. We did not, however, find anything that looked like a comet.
I called the city desk of the newspaper to find out what had happened to the comet. The editor said he didn't know, but they'd been getting a lot of calls asking the same question.
Back to the observation deck. Up went the binoculars. Finally we saw a tiny white spot that faded in and out, right where the comet was supposed to be. We kept watching, the certainty growing that this had to be it. The certainty was also growing among the children, at least, that mother's moving ball of fire was a bust. They went to bed.
No sooner was dinner over Wednesday night than we were outside in back of the house again. Over to the west, we found a brilliant white light with a suggestion of violet around it. The children were thrilled. So was I. We'd finally found something that looked like a comet.
It was Venus.
After much craning of necks and squinting of eyes, we spotted something to the left of Venus that looked like a moving ball. But then, about 10 p.m., we found something in the east that also looked like a moving ball. Right about then, my 3-year-old daughter appeared in the driveway, carrying her nightgown and asking for help getting it on. That's enough to bring you back to earth.
It turns out that the moving ball we saw--or thought we saw--to the left of Venus probably was the comet. Robert Harrington, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, said it was easy to see with the naked eye on Wednesday night, especially for people living away from the city lights. I told him I was thinking of getting a telescope. He said to stick with binoculars.
Comet-watching is not for the faint of heart. While some people might get discouraged, I'm determined to see a comet at least once in my lifetime. I may not have to wait long. Harrington says three Japanese astronomers discovered a new comet last Sunday that may come close to earth sometime next week.
I'm beginning to believe that comets are somewhat overestimated mysteries of the universe. But if the next one comes our way, I'll be there.