We haven’t had many clear nights lately, and on what few we’ve had I’ve forgotten to go out and look. It was mostly clear tonight, though, with a day old moon, and the next several nights are forecast to be cloudy. It was, in other words, possibly our last, best chance. Kenny and I went out in the driveway with a pair of binoculars and saw Comet Holmes.
I’m pretty certain we’re no close relations to the 19th century English amateur astronomer, Edwin Holmes, who discovered that comet 115 years ago. Still, one can’t help identifying, and it’s nice, I think, that Kenny’s first comet was one he shares a name with. It’s my third or fourth, I believe. I was too young for Arend-Roland in 1957, and I don’t think I saw Seki-Lines in 1962. I may have seen Ikeya-Seki in 1967, though I don’t remember it clearly. I don’t recall anything about Bennett in 1970 or West in 1976. (West should have been spectacular, and I as a high school junior interested in science really should have known about it and seen it, but I didn’t; apparently it was very underpublicized after the 1973 Kohoutek fiasco, and maybe that accounts for it.) I did go looking once or twice for Halley in 1986 but with no success. So the first two comets I saw and remembered clearly were Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997. McNaught earlier this year, of course, was too far south for me to have much of a chance at, and I didn’t see it.
Holmes isn’t as spectacular as those, but even in our less than ideal environment and with little time for dark adjustment Kenny and I could clearly see it as a faint spot off Perseus’s shoulder. Through 7×50 binoculars it showed clearly as a big fuzzy round spot, in clear contrast to the pointlike stars around it.
I pointed out the Pleiades to Kenny, too, and then we went in. But in reading about Holmes’s discovery of the comet while observing the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, I was reminded that I’ve never seen a galaxy beyond our own. Which is ridiculous: M31 is a full fledged spiral galaxy larger than our own, and practically next door; it’s a naked eye object under the best conditions, and easily seen with binoculars, or so they tell us. I did go out looking for M31 a couple years ago but I guess I didn’t have a good chart. Enough, I said tonight, and after Kenny went to bed I went back out with Stellarium running on my MacBook and pretty easily found it. A smudge, dimmer than Holmes in the binoculars and nothing I could see without them, but definitely there. So I have now (finally) seen light that’s 2.5 million years old.