Life in Motion: Looking up

One of the many things I enjoy about working with Now Habersham weather forecaster, Tyler Penland, is that he makes me look up – literally.

Knowledgeable and passionate about all things weather and astronomy-related, Tyler has a deft way of engaging those of us who are far less celestial-minded. So much so, that in the five years that we’ve been working together, I have spent more time than in all my preceding years glancing upwards. So, too, has my family. Together, we watched the solar eclipse in 2017 and have shared many late nights and pre-dawn hours looking up to the heavens, staring at stars, searching for comets.

We did so again this past weekend.

Stargazers gathered at the Hogpen Gap overlook on GA-384/Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway on July 18, 2020, to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE.

Intrigued by the chance to witness a once in a lifetime cosmic event, we made the trek up the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway (GA-384) to catch a glimpse of the Comet NEOWISE. Tyler’s been writing about it for weeks. He even shared a photo he captured of the comet streaming across the night sky. We wanted to see it for ourselves. While we did not have a particular destination in mind, just somewhere ‘up on the mountain’, we found the perfect viewing spot at Hogpen Gap. There, along with several dozen other expectant stargazers, we waited and watched as the sun slowly melted into the horizon. There was a rumbling of excitement as we saw the International Space Station glide by some 200 miles from Earth. And you can imagine the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ people let out when we got the added bonus of seeing a shooting star (I made a wish).

There was a certain reverence to the impromptu gathering as we huddled in our small groups of family and friends. And although we didn’t interact much with one another, everyone was polite, friendly, and bound by our shared common interest in looking up.

The Big Dipper shone brightly in the sky, helping to guide our attention to the comet below it (not visible in this picture).

As the sky darkened and lightning flashed in the distance, you could hear the hushed murmurs from people searching the sky, trying to help one another find the comet. The 7th-grade science teacher sitting at a picnic table next to me spoke the loudest. At first, I was annoyed as his voice cut through the serenity, but soon, I found myself listening to his commentary as he eagerly shared it with everyone within earshot.

He said he became a science teacher because he had a teacher who believed in him, one who encouraged him at an early age. He bemoaned the fact that his own students were missing out on this stargazing venture. And he was among the first of us to spot NEOWISE in the northwestern sky, just below the bowl of the Big Dipper.

It was faint, but also unmistakable as the comet tail left a trail visible from 70 million miles away. As the science teacher continued with his free guided sky tour, my thoughts began to wander and his voice played in my head like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Random questions filled my head, spacey questions like, “I wonder if NEOWISE has any idea what a big deal it is here on Earth?” “What’s it like to live in the space station?” “Why didn’t I take more science classes?”

“Isn’t this nice?”

Anne Purcell looking up to see Comet NEOWISE in the northwest sky on Saturday, July 18, 2020.

It was almost like praying in church when your thoughts stray and you find yourself drifting farther and farther away. Although at this moment, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t feel rushed or hurried to get back “on topic.” I let my mind wander and wonder as we sat there looking up at the night sky. Although we wore masks and made sure to socially-distance, I felt free from the stress and worry of the pandemic. Free from the political bickering and posturing that now invades our daily lives. Free from the anxiety over where our world’s headed. I felt free. Just simply, free.

As I counted the stars in the Big Dipper (something I’d never done before) and raised my camera into the dark to take pictures (just hoping it would work), I felt more relaxed and at peace than I have in months. It was like a mental vacation.

(photo by Tyler Penland)

Until I started looking up, I never appreciated how much of a respite the universe offers from life on this planet. Looking up is like looking out at the ocean; it puts things into perspective. The vastness overwhelms you, making life in our self-contained bubbles seem far more manageable and not quite so all-important.

As we reluctantly left the overlook after more than two hours spent looking up, I was struck by our presence in this spacetime continuum. It was the first and likely last time that my sister and I and our 88-year-old mother would see NEOWISE. We’re all pretty certain we won’t be around when the comet returns to the inner parts of our solar system in 6,800 years.

Who knows, maybe then we’ll enjoy the show looking down.

NOTE: Comet NEOWISE will make its closest approach to the Earth on July 23rd before beginning to fade rather quickly on its exit. You’ll need a clear sky to see it. Look to the northwest sky below the Big Dipper 30-45 minutes after sunset or later. You can see it with the naked eye but binoculars and telescopes help. 

Nik Thomason, 18, of Alto took these photos of Comet NEOWISE from outside St. Thomas Anglican Church on Mud Creek Road in Alto on Sunday, July 19 at around 10:00 pm. 

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