I was walking out of a PTA meeting one evening in November, and looked up and saw a unique body in the sky. I pointed it out to every I saw walking by, as it was the comet ISON which flew through the night sky until Thanksgiving. You may have heard about this comet, as the press declared it would be 15 times brighter than the moon! Which, while technically true, isn’t quite as impressive in the night sky since it is much, much, much smaller than the moon. Still, it was a bright new object that I’m not used to seeing.
About a million years ago, ISON was flung out into deep space on a collision course with the sun. It’s hard to imagine something just flying for a million years, being pulled this way and that by various large body objects, and then explode into our sun on Thanksgiving of all days. In all honestly, the comet didn’t really look any different to my eye than any of the other planets we get to occasionally see. It was cool for me to look for the object after Thanksgiving and not see it. Once in a lifetime is quite apt.
After graduating high school, my goal was to be an astro physicist. I had read many stories, and seen many movies, about space travel. I even wrote in my Bioethics high school class that we should just turn the Earth into a giant farm and all move out in to space stations. My teacher didn’t agree and asked if that was really what I wanted, but still gave me an “A” for my efforts. The real genesis of my desire to be an astro physicist wasn’t Star Wars, but one evening on Orcas Island when I was 9 or 10 years old. We were experiencing a “once in a lifetime” meteor shower event. I was able to lay outside and look up at the night sky. Without city lights, everything was brilliant and massive. I counted 100 meteors and another 20 satellites that night. It was fascinating and powerful, and I was hooked.
I read every Brian Swimme and Stephen Hawking book I could fine. In modern physics I read Einstein’s relatively and hung out outside the school library imagining flashlights on the front of spaceships moving at light speed. After my sophomore year as a Physics undergrad, I got a summer grant to do research with the University telescope. I was only the second research project on the new telescope, and my job was to image remote galaxies and determine how far away they were from the Earth. Specifically, I looked for bodies called “H2 regions” and used the computer to determine their angular size. From there, it was simple trigonometry to determine distance. I was within 1% error of commonly accepted values, so we determined our telescope was pretty good.
It got me thinking, though, that 1% error could still equate to a difference of light years in physical space. So, we could get out there, and be off by a LONG way. Our Universe is immensely vast, and we learn more about it constantly. The ISON comet got me thinking about space again, so I started reviewing facts about our solar system. How big is our sun? So big that 99.8% the mass of the solar system is in the sun. Most of the rest of the mass is in Jupiter. No matter how big I think the Earth may feel, it is a tiny little spec in a tiny little solar system on the outskirts of a tiny little galaxy in our Universe. I recently learned that Neptune has a storm cloud similar to Jupiter. They creatively call it the “Great Dark Spot” and it is as wide as the Earth.
Ultimately, back in college, I found research to be quite boring and opted to pursue computer engineering as a career. Later in life, I learned that I could have gone into writing software models of the universe, but I didn’t know that was an option at the time. I do tend to still look up at the night sky quite often. I have a star chart that I use every once in a while and I keep trying to get my boys interested in the stars. I don’t think they really care, but they humor me and it’s fun.
My other hobby is reading the Mars One newsletter. If you haven’t heard of Mars One, it is a concept for a reality tv show being produced by the Dutch. Each year, they will send a group of astronauts to live on Mars. These are one way tickets, so they need to bring everything they ever need. I find it fitting that reality tv will make it to Mars long before science. While Earth is 78% nitrogen, Mars is 90% carbon dioxide. Therefore, I’m wondering if Mars One settlers will plant cacti? I wonder how their night sky will look different from ours. I also wonder how many of the settlers “once in a lifetime” experience will end pleasantly.