Musings on Comet ISON

So I’ve been really digging this image of Comet ISON passing Earth that later crashed into the sun around Thanksgiving. (And here’s another shot.) The images were taken by Babak A. Tafreshi, and I found them while linking through some sites after reading about the comet on the Astronomy Picture of the Day. (I’d recommend having the one of the first two images visible, as I reference them often in this post.)

I’ve been thinking about getting a print of it, but it would be over $100 for a decent size. Yet I’m still considering it. It’s got so much in it. So much meaning and metaphor to me. And I thought I’d share.

First of all, this astronomical event has some special meaning to me because I learned that a relative of mine, whom I normally just chat with once a year over Thanksgiving, has a profound appreciation for space, astronomy, and the cosmos. He was tracking the progress of this comet while telling us about the new exoplanets found in the past few days and updating us on the positions of certain spacecraft tumbling through the emptiness to make exciting new discoveries. He clued me in to paying more attention to the comet, and we made a pleasant connection.

But removed from my personal reasons is the science, too!

Comet ISON was the first comet to come from the Oort cloud in recorded history. It flew by us, clearly made quite the spectacle, and headed towards the sun. It really feels like a memorable moment to me: the first rare astronomical event that really captured my attention, more than eclipses and alignments. This was an ice ball just jetting into our neighborhood with a course no one quite knew the end of.

I see it as the most spectacular foreign object to grace our presence, to come so close. (With no offense intended to the Chelyabinsk meteor in February!) It travelled for a long, long time, from unknown and possibly never known origins. And it got to show off. It got to be appreciated for a few moments by some creatures wandering around on a rock they call home.

Comet ISON has seen things we haven’t. It’s been farther than we have, certainly much farther than Voyager 1 and 2 at this time. And yet its trip was frozen and quiet, while we wish to share and celebrate what’s out there.

But the comet was a brief visitor. Its time with us went quickly as we kept track of its progress as it looped around the sun, dared it, challenged it from the first glimpse of our system. It raced past us and careened around the burning giant… with only a whisper to return on the other side. Scattered remains of the spectacle.

I think about what happened, and I think about those images. In them, the comet might as well have been falling right to Earth. Right to those trees in the foreground. We were the ones being visited, really. We were the ones to give it its meaning. Give it its name. Care about its fate.

I think about the objects in the image. Everything seems so close. The trees, the remnant light from our sun, the comet, the bright star Spica, and the hundreds of tiny dots speckling the darkness. But it’s not just the dimensionality of the image that has this closeness effect. It’s the comet itself, coming from such a long way, connecting us to that which is so distant in a way that light waves can’t. Physically passing us by and going as quickly as it came.

I want humanity’s legacy to follow this celestial object’s effect of bridging the endless gap of the universe. I want us to reach out in a similar way and touch other distant objects. Maybe be enriched by them. If we’re lucky, other creatures might be enriched by us. But I wish us not to challenge that which we seek when we explore new lands. To not fall by our folly, either, and turn to a whisper.

The plant life in the image, cast in no light, show such a contrast to the celestial objects above, as well. The trees are snakey, bushy, and winding, crawling upwards, feebly towards the deceptively close stars. Beyond our atmosphere and world all is cold, tumbling, rotating, and spherical. In the photo, jagged, organic edges are presented alongside idyllic, physical orbs. United by the randomness of it all.

And this parallels the hopes I have for humanity, as well as the human condition. I want us to get our organic butts to Mars and our squishy selves much, much farther in the future. But real concerns about the well-being of us all here, on what is currently our only home, ground the visions of expensive, complicated, and technologically-advanced space travel. It is not lost on me that those images were taken in Kenya, on the continent of Africa, which needs more help than likely any other place in the world.

It’s these two disparate worlds, distinct mentalities, that I move between. The literally and figuratively highest aspirations sit alongside providing the most basic of necessities for those that are so much closer. And it is through these images that I see and recognize them.

Comet ISON is special to me, because unlike other comets that will return, even in dozens or hundreds of years, this one had but one pass. And we had but one chance to appreciate it. One chance, like so many things. So I choose to appreciate not only its moment in the sunlight, but also its long journey to reach us.

Edit: Sorry, Jan Oort!

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