Science

A heavenly flash of immortality

TERENCE DICKINSON May 29 1978
Science

A heavenly flash of immortality

TERENCE DICKINSON May 29 1978

A heavenly flash of immortality

Science

As he had done every clear night for the previous two months, Rolf Meier bent to the eyepiece of a 16-inch reflecting telescope and scanned the night sky above the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Ottawa observatory. He was looking for a wisp, a faint puff of luminous cosmic gas as evanescent as a baby’s winter breath. A comet. Shortly after 9 p.m. on a clear night late last month, Meier stopped scanning, drove home, told his parents and put in a call to the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within 24 hours the sighting was confirmed and the Comet Meier became the first comet ever discovered from Canada.

“My hope was that I was seeing it first and that there was lousy weather in Japan and most of the United States where the other comet hunters are,” said Meier, 24. an electrical engineer in the daylight hours. Everything was right for the sighting—the time, the weather, the location and the instrument. But it wasn’t all luck. Meier is one of Canada’s most dedicated amateur astronomers and regarded by his colleagues as an excellent observer. When only five years old he asked why the moon has phases. “I can still remember the details of the answer I was given,” he says. “Yet I have absolutely no idea why I am obsessed by the subject.” While at Carleton University working for his degree in electrical engineering Meier couldn’t stay away from the Ottawa club’s telescope. “I’d stay up nights observing and photographing and then sleep through my classes the next day. At times I almost lived at the observatory.”

Having his name immortalized in the form of a flying mountain of ice adrift in space hasn’t changed Meier’s life. “But it’s hard to think of an encore,” he says. Hard indeed. Even if other comet hunters using smaller telescopes had looked directly at Comet Meier they wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from a star. However, the comet is plainly visible in the 16-inch telescope—a puff of dust and gas made recognizable by reflected sunlight.

Comets are trillion-ton spheres of frozen gas sprinkled with a gravelly mixture of dust and debris. They usually remain in the outer solar system beyond Pluto, the most distant planet. Occasionally, for reasons not entirely clear, they plunge toward the sun, loop around it and then retreat again to the frigid abyss. Only when they are near the sun, about the distance of the earth or closer, do comets become visible due to solar radiation melting their icy

coatings. The feeble pressure of sunlight is sufficient to sweep the vapors into a diaphanous tail. Otherwise the comet has to be within a few million miles of the earth to be bright in the night sky. Calculations show that Comet Meier is now more than 100 million miles from earth and heading toward us. Experts think it might be one of those rare comets that does reach naked eye visibility. Ironically, when this happens Comet Meier will have travelled to a position too far south to be seen in Canada.

Comets are believed to originate in a vast shell-shaped region encircling the solar system. The shell could easily contain 5 billions of the frozen spheres. “They are z probably material of the most fundamen3 tal nature representing the earliest stages

of the origin of the solar system—possibly just prior to the earth’s own beginnings,” says Fred L. Whipple, former director of the Harvard Observatory. “It seems certain that they are primordial material more pristine than anything found in the inner solar system near earth.” It is the prospect of examining something that has remained frozen and untouched for so long that has prompted NASA, the U.S. space agency, to propose the first mission to a comet. Tentatively scheduled for a launch in 1985, the spacecraft would sweep by Halley’s Comet late in 1985 and then orient itself in space for examination of Comet Temple 2 in 1988. The mission is sparking high scientific interest because Halley’s Comet will be badly placed for earth observers. In Canada, it may not even be visible to the unaided eye, unlike the last pass in 1910 when it was a spectacular nighttime sight—so impressive that hucksters were successful at peddling “comet pills” to protect the gullible as the earth swept harmlessly through the “poisonous vapors” of the comet’s tail. TERENCE DICKINSON