By Marty Russell
Somebody keeps throwing rocks at us, and can you really blame them? If there were some cosmic rock-thrower out there what better target than Earth which, as the late author Douglas Adams, whose would-have-been 61st birthday was honored with a Google Doodle Monday, described in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” as “an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.”
Those cosmic forces wouldn’t have to look hard to find a reason to bombard us out of existence with space rocks considering we’re the planet that gave the universe politics, wars, shooting smoke up a chimney to announce a new religious leader rather than just coming out and saying it and Facebook.
So, once again, we find ourselves gazing up at the night sky as an enormous space rock whizzes by and thinking, “That’s glorious! That’s grand! They missed us again! Whew! Hope those guys don’t get glasses.”
Yes, once again for what seems here lately like an almost weekly event, you can go out just after sunset, face west toward the crescent moon, stick your arm out to full length, make a fist with the bottom just at the horizon, and hope nobody in a white coat sees you.
If you look just above your fist, you should see what looks like a faint patch of light. Impressive, huh? But with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you’ll see that that faint patch of light is actually a comet, with its tail streaming out behind it almost perpendicular to the horizon. (Anyone who invents a language that includes the word “perpendicular” deserves to have rocks thrown at them).
It’s Comet PanSTARRS, which has just completed a loop around the sun and is heading back out into deep space never to be seen in our lifetimes again. It will be visible in the western sky just after sunset for about another week. There was never any danger of it hitting the Earth, at least this time around, but the cosmic rock throwers have quite a pile of stones still in their arsenal.
In early December they’ll try again with Comet ISON, which is predicted to put on an even better show than PanSTARRS although comets, and cosmic rock throwers, are notoriously unpredictable. While neither comet is expected to threaten Earth, that could change next year.
Comet Siding Spring, named for the observatory in Australia that discovered it in January and then was nearly burned to the ground, probably by angry cosmic rock throwers, could actually collide with Mars on Oct. 19 of next year after whizzing past the Earth. While astronomers expect it to miss Mars by about 30,000 miles, there’s still a chance it could hit the planet if something causes the orbit to change between now and then. Or if the cosmic rock throwers get an eye exam.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.